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Icon prepares for ‘Emancipation Day’ performance

Thursday, July 7, 2011
Emancipation Day celebrations will feature Michael Manswell, centre, and Something Positive. Photo courtesy Marcia Wilson and Wide Vision Photograph

Finally, New York’s premier dance troupe is coming to Trinidad for Emancipation Day celebrations. Renowned for its syncretic and high octane choreography to the evocative sounds of Africa, Something Positive Inc is led by the incomparable Michael Manswell—singer, dancer, choreographer and lecturer. The performance will take place on July 26, with a special storytelling feature on the July 28. “We are very excited about performing Ancestral Chants in Trinidad for Emancipation Day celebrations at the Savannah.  “As you know, it enjoyed an incredible run at the Kumble Theatre here in Brooklyn. Trinidad is in for a surprise,” Manswell disclosed during a meeting on a humid summer evening at Mellanie’s Restaurant on Nostrand Avenue. Over some tasty Trini cuisine, he shared his views on dance-related subjects.

On defining dance

I must first thank God that we are not dead..... even getting out of bed in the morning is dance, a ritual in the most skeletal form. I would say that dance is a movement among organisms, a narrative, a way of communicating with or without sound. It is so much... life itself. It can convey the movement and cycles of life. It can reveal so much, including your own epiphany. You can be part of that movement or be a spectator.

Carnival wining

Oh, I have heard the criticisms of vulgarity. Just let these critics go to festival days in Nigeria and the Congo. Martha Graham, when asked where dance comes from, answered: “Blood remembers.” To decry wining as savage, bestial and primitive is exactly what our colonial and post colonial system had us believe. It’s a way of crippling indigenous expression in order to maintain the norm. Wining is about energy activation and flow. It is really not necessary to understand what you are doing, or the story behind it. What is important is the evolution of the process.

Children and dance

So important to let them express themselves naturally. Their dance is organic, an uninhibited expression of self. This is the basis of evolution. 

The possessed dancer

The knowledge or movement comes to you at such a pace that there is really no memory or conscious internalisation, except of course, muscle memory. Some dancers on stage are possessed, absolutely. The conscious dancer on the other hand is applying training and discipline in a conscious manner.

Spirit dancers

We are bound by our physicality. It was TS Eliot who said in Four Quartets that “words crack, strain and sometimes break,” meaning that we just cannot express an experience in words. The spirit dance is really trance-dancing where there is no observable difference between the dancer and the element or spirit with which the dancer has merged. Some dancers perform in and out of spirit. At times, dancers can be unaware that they have become one with an idea, a principle. I remember Natalia Makarova’s incredible interpretation of Ruth St Denis’s Incense. This was a classical example of the dancer merging with spiritual energy.

Dance and political change

Change brings about discomfort, unease, pain, but hope. You can apply that principle to revolutions and the dancer who is now starting out. The first movement of the beginner is in fact revolutionary, a change from the old to something promising and new. The same I guess with politics. It’s so interesting that revolutions are called “movements” in politics. Again, you see how everything is tied into dance. Really, dance is life itself.

 Hip hop and popular dance

Oh, delightful to watch. Sometimes, popular dance is heavily choreographed. Nothing is wrong with that. The repetition and regimented movement becomes  a mantra. Sometimes you want that repetition to achieve a desired effect. Conversely, spontaneous dancing or improvisation, is equally important. Sometimes the dancer who can improvise is the one best trained in technique.

 Manswell’s take on dance icons

Alvin Ailey: Conscious, a dedicated aesthetician. 

He followed the sound in his heart and risked presenting his experiences as valid for stage.

Michael Jackson: Perfectionist who respected the process of the performing arts. Highly detailed and his work was well crafted.

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Phenomenal  and unbelievable.

Fred Astaire: Always joyful to watch.

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