A choreographer uses calypso to explore her Caribbean identity.
Wed Oct 14 2009
Photograph: Cornelio Casaclang
Even over the telephone, the warmth of Cynthia Oliver’s laugh resonates as she talks about her life in the Midwest, where she is an associate professor in the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “My friends in New York said, 'You’ll be back in three years,’” she confides. “It’s been nine. It’s stunning to me that I love it.” For 18 years, Oliver was a dance fixture in the city, where she performed with choreographers like Ronald K. Brown and David Gordon, and created her own Bessie Award--winning productions. Beginning Thursday 15, she’s back in town for Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso, an evening-length work for six women that explores calypso music and Caribbean identity.
What is the role of calypso in your personal life?
It’s a connection to home. I was born in the Bronx but I grew up in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I was around seven or eight when my family moved back. My father is from there. I spent eight or nine years in St. Croix—it’s where I became an artist. I had two primary teachers who swayed me; one was a German woman, Atti van den Berg, who had danced with Kurt Jooss—so I had this whole German Expressionist, balletic influence on the one side because she took me under her wing. On the other, I had Afro-Caribbean material, because she brought a colleague from Trinidad, Montgomery Thompson. At the same time, calypso was always around me. It was in our carnivals, it was the music played in our house, it was always laughter and song and people making social commentary, and it was my grandfather having a drink of rum on the weekend and dancing to it.
You’ve been working on this piece for several years. How did it begin?
I was doing research for my dissertation in 1999, and a woman in St. Thomas told me about the taboo things for beauty-pageant queens. At the time, they weren’t allowed to take part in certain kinds of events, and one of these was a boat ride. On these boat rides, a calypso band goes out on a boat filled with people who dance all night. I started thinking about the role of calypso and why it is taboo and about its role in my own life.
Were you a fan of calypso music growing up?
My preferred music, personally, was reggae, as a young Caribbean girl, but I always knew calypso was the soundtrack of my life. I always knew that I had to know certain things about calypso. I started noticing, in more recent years when I would hear it in places other than the Caribbean, that it was the signifier of Caribbean identity. That it was one of the ways we recognized each other. We communed with one another, and I decided I wanted to start working on a creative dance-theater piece around some of those issues because it’s a historical form; there’s a lot of rich story and conflict and good material for performance work, and so I did some research in London and Toronto. In having lived in New York for 18 years, I had a good body of evidence from the Caribbean diaspora. I have a group of women who are from the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Liverpool and Toronto—a variety of places where Caribbean people have landed. We started working on creating a piece that is not always directly related to the music, but some of the text and the movement is inspired by conversations around calypso music.
Are you referring to conversations that you had with each other?
Yes—and that I had with people I interviewed and from my own personal experience.
What did you figure out about calypso through an interview? Could you give me an example?
I was in London and people all kept talking about how calypso is not so important. I was thinking, This doesn’t sound right, and then I realized, I’m talking to Jamaicans and they don’t have the same value of calypso music as Eastern Caribbean people—so I started looking for the Eastern Caribbean folk there. I knew that we all had conflicts; there are national conflicts all the time, but I was getting a different reading, so in the piece I decided to address that. There’s a moment in which you hear the text of a guy who said to me, in a very arrogant way, that the most influential music and culture in the world was Jamaican. And it was reggae. [Laughs]
What are some of the issues of calypso?
Because it’s a mode of social commentary, it is sometimes controversial. The way of dancing to it is hip initiated and, historically, black people moving their hips has always been categorized as lewd and lascivious. It’s not always about sexuality, but it is about a virtuosity of the body and how women are interpreted when they do that kind of performance. It’s the kind of thing that people want to prevent young women, or even children, from performing because it’s seen as inappropriate. That’s the controversial nature of it and we address some of that in the piece. It is a piece for all women, even though I didn’t intend it to be.
Really? You planned on having men?
I had opened this up to men and women, and it just played out this way. A couple of guys who were going to be in it ended up having commitments and I said, “Okay, we’re just going to address some of these issues with women and we’ll see what happens.” It was good.
You found the performers from all over. How?
[Laughs] It was kind of a variety of ways. I went to high school with one woman, Caryn Hodge, in St. Croix. Another I met at an elevator at a conference. I was giving a paper at Barnard and I came downstairs to get a bottle of water and she was standing by the elevator—a gorgeous woman—and she looked like she didn’t know where she was. I walked up to her and said, “Who are you and why are you here?” And she said, in this very thick British accent, “I’m here to look for a choreographer who works with Afro-Caribbean movement and modern dance.” [Laughs] I swear to God. Her name is Ithalia Forel; she was doing study at the Limn School. [Urban Bush Women’s] Jawole Willa Jo Zollar told me to look at another woman, A’Keitha Carey. She’s from Barbados. Another is someone I went to grad school with, Rosamond S. King, who I knew was a performance artist and a writer. Nehassaiu DeGannes was referred to me from a friend from grad school; she’s an actor who moves really well. And [choreographer] Germaul Barnes said, “I have a dancer, Lisa Green, you might be interested in who works with me—she’s from Jamaica via Toronto.” I called her. There were other people; I also put out a call for Caribbean artists and I narrowed things down and brought everyone together. So it was a long and twisting road, but it led to just the right combination.
Where did you make the piece?
We made it all over. It’s that kind of “virtual company”—that’s Bebe Miller’s term. We had an initial residency in Illinois. We’ve done some time in Philadelphia and in Maine. Whenever I can find enough money to get us all together and work, that’s what we do. I have to fly them in from all over. It’s a little expensive [Laughs].
What does the title mean?
Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Please repeat after me. I’m kidding. It’s a rhythmic call to party that I’ve heard, off and on, since I was quite young. I was at home at Christmastime and I had the radio on and one of the DJs called it out, and I was like, Oh! That’s it.
What type or qualities of movement do you use in the piece?
I have spent so many years doing contemporary dance, so I have those principals in there; I have African dance. Release, speed, rhythmic complexity. It’s polyrhythmic, and there’s a play between the sacred and the secular. As a choreographic concept, I make a lot of use of the reggae notion of version—a version of an original something that gets manipulated in a variety of ways. I have always used that as a choreographic concept, but here it comes home more powerfully because I’m actually using the music. So there are a combination of things that are part of this.
How does calypso movement fit in?
There’s a variety of ways of moving to calypso, and we break it down in the piece. There’s a figure eight that happens in the shuffle of the feet and a delicate shift of the hips—this is called wining. Then there is the more raucous hip grinding; there is the movement that looks like a simulation of sexual intercourse. There are all these incarnations of this wining thing that we use as a physical vocabulary, and there’s a staccato, there’s legato, there’s a wide range of ways to move the body to calypso music called soca. It’s the party version of calypso.
Is there a great deal of text?
Of course. It’s me! I can’t keep my mouth shut! [Laughs]
Why are words so important?
I’m a storyteller. It doesn’t have to be linear and I’m almost more interested in nonlinear story, but I’m also interested in what exceeds physical movement and in something that complements the physical movement. I want to connect with people on multiple levels. So you see the movement, you hear the words, you hear the sound, you see the visual—it’s a way of getting to you from a number of fronts. I’ve always been interested in the way language can dance.
How has this experience changed you?
I don’t know that it has changed me as much as it has reaffirmed for me a place in a particular community. It’s reassuring to know that the imagined community that I had been a part of all this time—and that had helped me manage living in the U.S.—is actually there. [Laughs] It is complex and there are things that I get to in this piece, and then there are things that exceed the piece. In that, I keep my interest in my own cultures alive.
Cynthia Oliver/COCo Dance Theatre is at Danspace Project Thu 15--Sat 17.
Cynthia Oliver’s calypso music primer
Anything by Machel Montano, the Mighty Sparrow, Calypso Rose and Lord Kitchener
David Rudder: “Madness,” “Calypso Music,” “Bacchanal Woman,” “Rally Round the West Indies”
Singing Sandra: “Crying in the Ghetto”
Pink Panther: “Laughing in the Ghetto”
Alison Hinds: “Roll It Gal”
Destra: “I Dare You”
Byron Lee & the Dragonaires: “Dollar Wine”