Ghostly Moves

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Some things, they say, happen for a reason, but some reasons are hard to explain, like the incomprehensible passion most Nigerians have for the sufferville called Nigeria. Over three decades of being a Nigerian and no less, has thought me how futile is the belief of the optimist, I equally can’t afford pessimism, so I have learnt to move through life with a pragmatic approach, because last last, we will be alright. Remembering and telling our stories, as tedious as the exercise may be, is still considered to be a necessary radical act. So here I am, the story I’m about to recount here is my attempt to remember and make sense of my journey in and out of Lagos, of Africa, and of the arts world as a whole. My subsequent socio-political engagement as an artist, researcher, entrepreneur, innovator, and community organiser, are all expressions of a vocation to which I am passionately dedicated.

Here is a little Introduction. my name is Qudus Onikeku, I am a movement artiste, I was born and grew up in Surulere district

 

of Lagos - Nigeria. Very quickly I had the urge to express something of myself, and it was at the age of 5, that it all began with acrobatic prowess, through my love for acrobatics I finally settled for dance at age 13 while in high school, and what followed is an uninterrupted attempt to make sense of this trancelike obsession, which enveloped my being since then. After dabbling into different dance trainings here and there, it was contemporary dance that finally grounded my interestedness, for it avail me the possibility for self expression, which I suspect had been the point of it all.

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After high school I moved from working at the Lagos state dance troupe, to being mentored by Victor Uwagba, Isioma Williams, and Christopher Abdul at varying degrees, I eventually left for France at the age of 20 to work with Heddy Maalem in Toulouse, after which i decided to enrol into circus arts training​​​​​​ at age 22. Between 2006 and 2009, I enjoyed a scholarship of the French embassy Abuja, to study at the prestigious Ecole Superieur National Des Arts Du Cirque in France. Upon graduation I started my first company, YK Projects in Paris at the age of 25. YK Projects was conceived as an international production and touring company, which evolved as a cross-cultural organization that would be open to the migrant experience. Our first production, My Exile Is in My Head (2010), was a solo dance and live music piece, which I made when it became clear that Nigeria had become inviable for me after my first attempt at homecoming in 2009.

For every conscious Nigerian artiste, there is always a moment in time when it becomes evident that there is in fact, a deliberate control and censoring of our creative temperaments, that it no longer matters what impact our ideas are set to tackle, the transformational and long-term social effect of art no longer matter more than who is the conveyor of such ideas, i.e. what golden or silver family name do they bear, and what are the clear "financial benefits" for every handler, participant, government agent, funders or sponsors approached as catalysts, no matter what measure of good one has set out to do, what matters most in Nigeria is “how much is in it for me?”. This appeared to be the real cultural, economic, and artistic face of corruption. When such standards are placed on who should be in control, the very first feeling that comes with such realisation, is a feeling of humiliation, one that sets a conscious creative in a totally spontaneous immediacy, to resist a normalcy that has been set as a result of our oppressors’ relentless effort, to force our creative will to accept all the vulgarity that has defaced and eaten up the legislators of meaning and of power.

This feeling of humiliation grew day by day in me, it evolved into anger, simply because it is hard to endure denial, especially when one feels a high level of competence for the required task. When an irreversible condition weighs heavier than our wish, we might, however, reconsider and accept a NO for an answer, but surely not in good faith. In my own case, what sent me to the path of exile was a series NO(s) which threatens an article of faith and killed a determination. It killed the love for a nation. It killed a pursuit for logic and meaning, but equally proved it to myself that I have long ago moved beyond compromise, rather than stay here and commit creative suicide in relative meaninglessness.

In December 2009 I bounced, because I would like to believe that the challenge for most Nigerian millennials is almost like rebuking a curse inherited from our fathers. In this incredible nation, our reason and human status gets deeply insulted every day, but a person who doesn’t want to get entangled in his journey through the jungle, must follow the elephant's track, and here we are as youth, determined to see through without any single track on our path.

 

With the suffering that comes with wakefulness, I returned to France completely disillusioned, and resigned into a lone creative journey to explore the themes of identity, exile, schizophrenia, and the contradiction between the idea of ‘home’ and the reality of return. “My Exile Is in My Head” premiered in 2010, it was the first burst of energy, although expressed in poetic forms, but it was me dealing with trauma, then it won me a number of international awards, and toured over 70 shows in 20 countries in Africa, Europe, and South America. Then I became visible, noticed in all the circles that mattered, then the supports and attention multiplied, so I seized the advantage to create a second work, to be sure it wasn’t a fluke. Not long after, I was named the ‘New Choreographic Talent’ in 2012 by the French society of authors; SACD. Since then, i have managed to create a movement identity that fuses the fluidity in dance and physicality of acrobatics. My international artistic practice intersects between my interest in visceral body movements, kinesthetic memory, disruptive practices and finding new forms for performances that aren’t centralizing Eurocentric approaches, embracing an artistic vision and a futurist practice that both respects and challenges Yoruba artistic tradition, contemporary dance, and Afro diaspora dance forms.

This unexpected success paved a fast lane through which I became aware that I was becoming a somebody in the dance world. In 2013, I made a third creation, which headlined Festival d’Avignon, the most important festival in France, by then my company was already on the list of organisations triennially funded by the French government. This quick rise and the access it gave me before the maturing age of 30, coupled with the boredom and futility that arises from triumph in exile, activated a shift of interest for me. I knew we could do more with the access and experience. In 2013, like the shadowy effect of being spell bound, my partner and manager, Haji and I decided to partially shut down our activities in France, and make another attempt to return to Lagos, Nigeria.

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We arrived in Lagos, January 2014, without prior plans except the conviction that, "Is it possible to reinvent the world in the scale of a city?". But Lagos isn't just any city. It is a mega (highly competitive and insanely energetic) city, it both scares the hell out of me, and at the same time, is precisely what i needed to feel the flow again, Paris made life too easy, all those offered fundings, those myriad theatres and festivals, yes they created an exciting support structure for the creatives, but it equally erected a reality too rigid and too much of a hippopotamus, you can do almost nothing to alter these erections. Lagos on the other hand, a no man's land, the wild wide west, literally. Nothing was ready-made, but ironically, the sort of money that fly around this city, Paris can never comprehend. It felt like home ones again.

 

Lagos moves, it is quick and fast but always fresh, flexible, and malleable, even if you are gone for just a year, you will only return on a long ass waiting list, so we waited, we waited to get the heat in ones again. After 6 months of self-immersion, feeling the pulse, learning to navigate the hustle and bustle, Lagos knew it, that i was only physically gone, my spirit never left, it opens up in the form of an idea, the one we now know as The QDance Center, whose sole ambition was to take dance out of the stage and see what a choreographer can do when both the dancer and the stage is the city itself. Choreographing Lagos was a gangster move, despite growing up in Lagos, we took our time to feel her pulse again and to learn her new dance. Very quickly I saw that the conditions which led to my withdrawal were still very present is the spirit of this society, but this time I came much prepared with a higher determination, a richer savings and better equipped with real life experience. My initial appraisal of those in whose hands the Nigerian society have entrusted the noble job of overseeing her creative life was nothing but disheartening.

As brilliant as they are in their numbers, the creatives there have understood the Nigerian society and her many troubles very much, but instead of upsetting it, they have largely fed the people on luxurious junks, and since the people are a product of what they eat; excellence and trash became muddled up, it is simply a matter of alternative, that's why we find it very easy to switch from one to the other depending on the mood of what is at stake. because if we place art for social change or serious work of pure creativity on the hot seat of deep thinking; if we vote for it in the parliament against the power of the absurdity that abound, what will be the end result? if we translate it into liquid cash or social media followers, what can it really afford? where is the promise that the effect of this article of faith will be felt one day soon, instead we see people pay dearly for daring to be different or do what is upright, we see activists and artistes die on a single notion of being true and for their quest for dignity in this society.

 

After seven months of immersion in Lagos, in August 2014, we began operations at The QDanceCenter, which we had envisioned as a social enterprise, an incubator, which applies artistic competence, human resources, innovation and creativity, as capacities for development solutions in a changing world. Our main focus was socially conscious practices, which resides at the intersection of art and society. To narrate all the muscles and ghostly moves we developed for what we achieved with The QDanceCenter, without any operating funding, will be to open up an entire book that has been begging me for a life. My experience and expertise as a choreographer, one who deals in intuitive and complex movement structures, collective body intelligence, improvisation, and divergent thinking; along with Hajarat’s expertise in human resources, talent management, and administration, served as available tool with which we co-founded QDance Center as a creative organization, performing the task of a performing arts hub; a fun, informative and creative space, that helped kick-start professional focus for passionate and creative young Nigerians.

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Let me at this point take a moment to frankly say something about Nigeria: This nation can sometimes be extremely discouraging when one takes the pain to allow its many problems to surface and spread through one’s mind. It is depressing mostly because it doesn’t seem much like a rocket science to take the self-motivated Nigerians to the promised land. “The elite” in my understanding, isn’t defined by wealth or position of power, but the best crops the land can offer, be they bakers or bankers, politicians or magicians, farmers or pharmacists, artists or scientists; the elite is defined by the quality of minds, of visions, of taste for the sublime, their sense of order and beauty and it is solely upon them that the job of dreaming a better future could and must be entrusted. The Nigerian soil is endowed with all sorts of gifts and talents, climate and befitting natural resources, our problem, however, lies in the sheer lack of convergence upon our vision and mission as a unit of humanity. Love is also missing, but more than love, missing too is courage, the greatest of all virtues, for without courage nothing can be consistent, it is the base of every action, and the lack of it bars our collective progress, the progress of this nation, I’m persuaded, require lots of courage.

 

To achieve progress in any given society, I maintain that three sets of authorities must gather the courage to collaborate. The dreamers, the labourers and the catalysts, instead of looking at it as a melody on top with a lot of silly accompaniments down there, the work towards progress is a polyphonic task, in order to understand it, we have to augment the overlapping areas of experience and create interdependent zones of engagement. The problem of Nigeria, however, is heavily augmented by the lack of dreamers. Those in positions of influence represent the catalysts, but in the case of Nigeria, they have grown heavily unused to collaborative patterns, the lure of power and position persuades them to buy the labourers to their own personal benefits and simply silence the dreamers.

 

The labourers are made mostly of the working class, who are called upon to respond to the will of the presumed ‘master plan’ for the promise of a specified wage. The dreamers in my mind, are the scientists, the artists, the clerics, the researchers, the poets, the tech creatives, the architects, the musicians and all those who spends most of their time visioning the future into tangible reality, these set of mutants are the ones that this country has either heavily silenced or corrupted if they don’t pack their baggage and leave out of frustration, this nation have continuously turned itself into graveyard for dreamers,

and we’ve done so to our own detriment and at our own expense. Today as we speak, such Nigerian dreamers are all over the world, dreaming for other nations and interests, the thing about the dreamer personality is that they also have to survive, and here I do not speak solely in financial terms, but mostly, a will to protect one’s dreams, one’s minds, one’s talents and creative energies, they’ve got the dire need for that, beyond their love for a fatherland. It is really rare to see some of us who decide to still return to this country, after existing within an ‘ideal’ condition.

 

This nation can be redreamed and reconditioned to do better. I know and I’m hopeful, but it is a matter of do or die, we do something grand, get it done or perish all together. On getting back to Nigeria, it was evident to us that we can no longer operate as we used to in France, our art making must be replaced by a peculiar art practice, we decided to identify a major societal problem and creatively seeks ways to tackle it. Sooner, we realised that 65% of Nigerians were below 25 years and 80% of them were unemployed. Within these dismal statistics, we saw an opportunity to transform this ticking time bomb into a historic opportunity through dance. Our thinking was partly influenced by the radical upsurge in the creative industry, which began with the success of the cinema industry, Nollywood, as it is popularly known, which has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, to become a significant employer of labour; music, comedy and the fashion scenes were equally sprouting with success stories. Dance seemed to us, to be the remaining sector that is yet to come full cycle, we saw it, both as a problem, and a chance for innovation.

 

We started thinking of how to repurpose dance, not just as a means of providing employment or engagement to young people, but given the passion that dance demands, we thought it was possible to find ways of productively channelling this abundantly available potential energy into kinetic energy, that is, something useful for other commitments. Delivering our work through a four-pronged approach we refer to as the QDance ACTS: Art making, Community development, Talent development & Services. Our social experiment worked, in less than two years we grew to become a preeminent creative organization in Nigeria with a global reputation, we enjoyed support and partnerships with local and global partners. In less than a decade since we started with YK Projects in Paris, and our subsequent creative entrepreneurial improvisations, we have managed projects internationally, at the index of over $3m.

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For more than two decades, I have managed to retain a presence in the international choreographic scene, while i was building my personal artistic practice, I equally danced and toured widely with renowned choreographers, such as Jean Claude Gallota, Sidi Larbi Charkaoui and Boris Charmatz, and have since managed to maintain a healthy creative life,​ with a substantial body of critically acclaimed work that ranges from solos to group works. The eclectic nature of my body of work had made me collaborate with visual artists, architects, musicians, poets, multimedia artistes, technologists, scientists, mystics etc. My works have established me as one of the foremost innovative, collaborative, community building, and challenging choreographers working today with different media; from being a keen performer, to a consistent choreographer, a culture curator, an innovator, a community organizer, and a social impact engineer, who subliminally uses art for non-art outcome. 

My works have since marked relevant influence internationally, having commissioned and premiered works at major international festivals and venues, such as Centre Pompidou, Festival d’Avignon, Biennale de Lyon, Philharmonie de Paris and Biennale de Val de Marne, France; Roma Europa, Torino Danza and Venice Biennale, Italy; Festival TransAmerique, National Gallery of Art, National Arts Center, Canada; Bates Dance Festival, Elevate festival Atlanta, PS21 New York, USA; Kalamata Dance Festival, Greece; Kino Siska Festival, Slovenia; Yokohama Dance Collection at TPAM, Japan; Correios Em Mouvemente, Brazil; Encender un Fosforo, Mexico; Dance Umbrella, National Arts Festival, Jomba Dance Festival, South Africa; Nyoba Kan Butoh Festival, Malaysia, TED Global as well as tours to over 50 countries. My dance works are equally in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

 

I was a visiting professor of dance at the University of California, Davis in 2013 and Columbia College, Chicago in 2018, while I am currently a research professor at the College of The Arts and the first “Maker in Residence” at The Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship of the University of Florida. My current research is at the intersection of Dance and AI, I am leading an interdisciplinary collaboration with researchers, scientists, and various dance communities, contributing significantly to various components of the research that is developing an AI-Driven software for annotating dance moves across cultures, a deep tech solution whose ultimate purpose is to build a dance data bank for deep learning, and to task the intelligence generated from the data to help protect IP for future dance makers.

Through my artistic journey, my interest has been more and more drawn towards the aesthetics, technology, episteme and artistry of African peoples at large. It is in my believe that the social-economic-political condition of a given time, usually informs the given culture of the time.

In view of this I’ve been looking closely at the questions of ‘contemporaneity’ for Africans, its broader aesthetics and identity in its widest sense; the differences, the discourse about it,  the power play around it, the instability of reality, the chauvinism, the colonialism, the hegemony, the migration, exile and the noisy confusion that they all produce together, in my daily reality and the way at which one may be addressed in the world. My own little effort has been to reinforce the experiences of a people that is far from being uniform, and absolutely impossible to be reduced to a succession of moments and events, skin colours or single stories.

I’m particularly interested in how the new generation of ‘African’ and ‘Black’ dancers continues to make a rethink of the forms and depth of dance, in the face of such unstable reality, how they turned dance to a connected current of excitation, whose language is in perpetual mutation. It is in my interest to continue to investigate new dance vocabularies, which defies a specific dance technique, dance tradition or form, but to build a genre of dance performance that employs systems and methods that draws on newer philosophies of movement, and to draw from the performance tradition of the èfé - Gèlèdè ​masquerade. In a sense, to make the statements, that Africa is not a place sitting inactive somewhere down south, but a space of creation that is not solely disorder, chance and madness, but emerges from a sort of violent burst, with its proper languages, its beauty and ugliness, and its ways of summing up the world. That, if we imagine Africa as a choreography, it will be understood as a field where the earth is unturned, which provides the bases for a constant reinvention of the body, the spirit and the world. This meant for me tapping into age long Yoruba philosophies, which already neatly outlined the part of the self, of alterity, of the commune and of the divine, in its imagination and the role of aesthetic beauty and of art.

In my approach to art, one thing is clear, this one thing however, might be seen as connection of many things that have simultaneously come to rest within my restless mind, and my body intelligence has created a guideline and a refuge for these complexities; my personal need for comprehension, for finding answers to the many questions that surfaces on my mind on a daily basis, together with my own personal artistic preoccupation, with a dire need to heal and to advance art and humanity, and to be a bridge between aesthetics that has either been wrongly understood or dismissed as low art, and in all of that I also find a space for my spirituality, in search of unity with the cosmos, with the divine, and hoping to recover a certain verticality, to recover the authentic self that is neither subjugated to norms, to myths, to histories, to the past nor thrown aback in his right to the assured presence. With enough skills, talent, experience and knowledge, which I have been able to gather and exercise overtime through my praxis, I hope to take from this diverse sources and transpose them into a unique form of contemporary and urban contexts.

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Founder /Artistic Director

YK Projects . Paris

QDanceCenter . Lagos

 

Artistic Director/Curator

DanceGATHERING Lagos

Research Professor

University of Florida

Visiting Professor

UC DAVIS. California

Columbia College - Chicago

C . V

LANGUAGES

Yoruba    •    Pigin    •    English    •    French    •    Portuguese​

Research, Curatorial and 

Artistic Projects

2019. "SPIRIT CHILD". a full length solo piece inspired by Ben Okri's seminal novel, The Famished Road, it features 1 dancer and 3 musicians, premiered in Cologne in June 2019.

2019. "AFRO SPACE TIME", co-curator of the third edition of danceGATHERING, which featured 83 artistes, thinkers and designers from Nigeria, USA, UK, France, Germany, Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Benin Rep., Uruguay, Brazil, Spain, Poland and Holland.

2019. "NEW MASKS", a mid length piece created with 7 West African dancers, at the Fari Foni Waati Festival in Bamako.

2018. "IYAMI", a mid length piece created with 9 Undergrads students at the Dance department of Columbia College. Chicago. Premiered on 17th December 2018.

2018. “YUROPA”, a full length piece exploring themes of migration, it features 3 dancers and 1 musician, premiered in Bremen in June 2018.

2018. "BODY & MEMORY", co-curator of the second edition of danceGATHERING, which featured 40 artistes, thinkers and designers from Nigeria, USA, UK, France, Germany, Israel, Rwanda, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Holland.

2017. “RAINMAKERS”, a short piece that features 8 dancers and 5 musicians, created for the TEDGlobal in Tanzania, and since performed severally in Nigeria.

2017. “INVOCATIONS”, a short feminine quartet, dealing with the question of human essence over social/gender roles, the dance piece was created for the opening of the danceGATHERING / Lagos Contemporary Dance Festival.

 

2017. “A BRIEF MOMENT OF TRUTH”, a short piece that features 3 dancers and 5 musicians, created for the TEDLagos.

2017. "MO(VE)MENTS" Curator of the first edition of danceGATHERING, which featured 20 artistes from Nigeria, USA, Mali, Mozambique and Tunisia.

2016. "WE ALMOST FORGOT", a full length piece that features 7 artistes of different origins and background. It deals with memories of a hurtful past, connecting with the present and how to move on with the future. It is a 2016 creation that was premièred in Berlin, Lagos and Abuja and Paris.

 

2016. "AN AFRICAN BALLET", a creation bringing together dance, mythology and music. It follows the poetic journey of an exiled son who traverses worlds and returns to finally reclaim his lost inheritance. The show features international dancer/choreographer, Qudus Onikeku, African classical composer, Tunde Jegede and guest artists, Renu Hossain (tablas) and Devon Carpenter (harp). It will be a unique meeting point between traditions, styles and genres.

2016. "QDANCE SESSIONn", a performance lab initiated by the QDanceCenter, Ikoyi. A semi curated gathering of performers, curious audience, creative minds, story tellers, seekers of truth, makers of beauty, workers and students of life amongst others, coming together just as they are, for a rare moment of sharing and for the purpose of creatively occupying the "Now".

 

2015. IWA L’EWA, a work commissioned by the British Council Lagos-Nigeria, the piece features 4 dancers with varying forms of disabilities, 6 non-disabled dancers and 5 musicians on stage. The piece discusses beauty in a non-conventional manner, what we could regard as beauty and what is not.

 

2015. ”AFRICAMAN ORIGINAL”, a piece created in 2015, commissioned by the Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou, the work dabbles Between dance, performance, stand-up, singing and a dance class. A journey into the universe of Fela Kuti, now imagined as a dancer. The work has since been performed in festivals in Libreville, Berlin, Bayreuth, Los Angeles, Brussels and Paris.

2014. "EXILE REMIXED", a Recreation of My Exile is in My Head to incorporate Zena Edwards, a london based poet and spoken word artiste. The piece was comissioned for Southbank Centre London, premiered during the AFRICA UTOPIA festival, 11th September 2014 and also performed at the Ake Festival. Abeokuta in November 2014..

 

2013.  "QADDISH" a full lenght piece with three musicians and an actor, which marks the last part of a Trilogy which began with 'My Exile is in My Head' and 'STILL/life'. Created for YK Projects, commisioned by the prestigous Festival D'avignon 2013. Premiered on 6th July 2013 with several tours around Europe.

 

2013.  "FLASH" a full lenght piece created with 11 (Grads and Undergrads) students at the department of Theatre and Dance of University of California Davis. Premiered on 7th March 2013.

 

2011 – 2012. Was commissioned by Festival d’Avignon and SACD to create « STILL / life » for Festival d’Avignon 2011, a solo piece in collaboration with the choreographer Damien Jalet, later performed in Bamako, Yokohama and Tokyo. It was later transformed into a full-length piece with the participation of the Musician Charles Amblard, singer/poet Habeeb Ayodeji Awoko, the light designer Guillaume Fesneau and the video artiste Isaak Lartey. Premiere on 24 March 2012, with tours in France, Slovenia and Greece.

 

2011.  Creation of «KADDISH» an improvised musical solo dance piece with seven musicians and a singer, with the collaboration of the foremost Italian Opera director Davide Livermore, for Torino Danza 2011. Premiere on 6 December 2011.



2011.  Creation of « we Dance we Pray » a demand from Vuyani Dance Theatre – Johannesburg, for 8 dancers and 4 musicians. Premiere on 13 October 2011.

 

2009 – 2012. Creation and touring of « My Exile is in My head » for Yk Projects, a Solo piece with the collaboration of the Musician Charles Amblard, the light designer Guillaume Fesneau and the video artiste Isaak Lartey, that emanate from a six month residency at Le CENTQUATRE in Paris. The piece gathered a remarkable success, and was named the laureate of the solo category at the Danse L’Afrique Danse 2010 in Bamako. The piece has since been performed 30 times in tours around France, Mali, Senegal, Congo, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, South Africa and Brazil.

 

2009.  Creation of « I must set Forth » that emanate from a residency period at the Bates College – Maine USA, a Solo piece created in August for Bates Festival, and later performed in Lagos Nigeria in octobre 2009 at the Trufesta festival.

 

2007. Carried out a research project on dance in alternative spaces, titled « Do we need Cola-Cola to dance? » conducted in Six African cities namely; Lagos, Cairo, Yaounde, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Maputo and toured in Nigeria, Brazil, Italy and USA. Later produced a Documentary film on the project. The project received recognition and award from France, Netherlands and at the European Union level.

 

2004 – 2006. First individual choreographic creation « Lost Face », toured in Nigeria, Republic of Benin, France and the Dominican Republic.