The Congolese artist embraces the future.
Mon Oct 3 2011
Photograph: Agathe Poupeney
The Congolese choreographer and director Faustin Linyekula packs a powerful punch, as more more more... future attests. With extravagant costumes by Lamine Badian Kouyat as well as lyrics by the poet Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, the work, which will be shown at the Kitchen starting Wednesday 12, embraces the prospect of a better tomorrow in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Inspired by the sound of ndombolo, a Congolese music form that Linyekula likens—at least in terms of its energy—to punk, more more more showcases the fierce talent of composer and guitarist Flamme Kapaya, who will perform live. Linyekula spoke about the work, part of Crossing the Line 2011, from his current U.S. tour.
What was the point of departure for this piece?
I moved back to Congo about ten years ago. When I got there, it was a different country—I left the country of Zaire, and I went back to Congo, so I got really obsessed with history, with trying to understand what I missed. I made a series of pieces around history and around memory—personal as well as collective memory—and three years ago, I started really asking myself, In all those years [away], did I really dance? Did I spend them telling stories or attempting to tell stories? I think that was probably a romantic idea of dance—that dance would be outside geography, history and society almost—but that was a big question. It was like, If I want to dance, how can I dance? One of the answers was, Okay, I'll invite a fantastic musician, one who has been making Congolese pop music for many years. Flamme Kapaya is a guitarist; he is a big star back home.
Tell me about him.
For ten years, he was the guitar player for one of the major bands in the country—one of those bands that could sell out a 50,000-seat stadium. So it was like, okay, can we imagine a project together? For him, after ten years of this, he had started feeling a bit contrived—like he was going around in the same circles. He wanted something else, which was a good coincidence. We started exploring this thing, but I think very soon you realize that you can't escape from yourself. The moment we started working, just the two of us at the beginning, it became clear that it couldn't just be about Flamme playing and me dancing. It became a dialogue about Congolese pop music—what it means for our society. One thing we both came to realize was that in the music, while it's sonically and aesthetically very different from rock or pop music, there were similarities with rock music of the late '60s or the late '70s. We use that energy to forget how hard [life] is. With Flamme, the question became, can you play ndombolo—which is a generic name of Congolese pop music—with a punk attitude? And if the answer is yes, let's coin a slogan. It can definitely not be "no future" like the punks, because we cannot destroy a future that was never promised to us. Probably the only way to be subversive in this country, where everyone is destroying something, is to be constructive. That's how it all came together, and after that, it was really just searching for how to build it. We started bringing other musicians on board and two dancers I've been working with for some years. And the final two artists are a fashion designer, and a writer, poet and friend of mine—we grew up together, and then he got jailed in 2001.
Antoine Vumilia Muhindo?
Yes. I went to see him in prison, and I was like, "I am going to do a piece. I want to call it more more more... future. From where you are when you hear that, what does it mean to you?" He wrote the text in the piece.
Is the text the lyrics?
Yes. It became the lyrics for the songs.
So the feeling of the music is really integral?
It's really about this music. How can I choreograph sound? And how does the sound affect the body? How does the body survive the sound, which somehow became some sort of metaphor for the space we live in in Congo, where it's so noisy generally—and this is literally as well as symbolically true. It's so, so noisy, and I just wonder how we survive in the middle of all this. We feel so fragile sometimes. That's why, when I started talking to the costume designer, Lamine, I said, "I need to make costumes that would be like shields." And the shields, at times, also become like a prison. There is all this tension somehow.
Did you work with the costumes from the beginning? Because they change the body drastically.
No. That was really a difficult change for the dancers. I had the images of the costumes, because I had been discussing them with Lamine all along and he would show me the progress, but we agreed that it would be best to bring them in, really, at the end. They discovered the costumes two days before the premiere.
Oh my God.
Exactly. Oh my God. They were like, "How are we going to move inside this?" It totally changed the choreography, but that was also something I wanted. That late arrival of the costumes created an extra tension, which was just healthy for the project. I think they took their revenge in that they left the heaviest costume for me. [Laughs] I wear the heaviest, bulkiest one.
What is it like to dance in that?
Because of the way I approach movement, there is a lot of [use of the] spine, and with this costume, that just cannot be seen. Every time I move, I think, Okay, it cannot be seen, but can it still exist? How can I share that with the audience?
You said that you wanted to choreograph sound. Did you just work with the dancers in the studio? Did you look at punk concerts? What was your process?
For the development of this work, I chose to work not in the studio but in a living room. It was a fairly big living room. We rented a house in Kisangani, and we pushed the furniture to the corners, and there was a drum kit, bass amps, guitar amps and dancers——so it felt really cramped. That's how we developed the work. You don't have a lot of space to move: How do you find your way inside of that? Only during the last ten days did we work directly in the theater; the space was so big that you move from one extreme to another. We were in this small living room where we were literally on top of one another to a big stage.
It was a strategy then, just like keeping the costumes a secret?
Yes, yes. Knowing that the costumes would totally change the movement and choosing to work in a very small space, but knowing that ultimately we would perform mainly in large spaces, meant that I was always trying to avoid too much comfort. That was also one of my questions: How can you stay awake? If there is just so much comfort, you lose alertness. Now that the piece has been on the road for two and a half years, the guys have developed comfort mechanisms. I try and find new ways of reestablishing some form of tension—it's so necessary. Otherwise the piece would just lose its meaning.
How have you done that recently?
If we got somewhere and did a run-through, rather than running the piece in the actual order, I move randomly through different sections. I would say [section] one and then jump to nine. It's like you need them to remain attentive to what is going on around them—it's exercises to get them to stay together.
In terms of the movement development, I understand where you made it and what you were going for. Did you set up different scenarios? Or did you start out by moving to the music?
We didn't just move to the music. Being inside that music and staying in that space, it was really like plugging our bodies into this energy. Then sometimes—the house was just by the Congo River, a bit in the suburbs of Kisangani—a dancer would just walk out of the house and be near the river, so from this journey, from the river into the cramped house, it was also just trying to remind the dancers to establish their own territory. But how can we? That's when we read a text by the Cameroonian thinker and writer Achille Mbembe; he wrote a beautiful text on Congolese music, which he called "Variations on the Beautiful in the Congolese World of Sounds." It's fantastic, and he talks about the body in the Congolese popular music scene: the screaming body, the floating body, a body that's trying to keep dignity in the middle of objection, and so being inside the music and stepping out sometimes to just reflect. This was also part of the game.
Can you talk about the structure of more more more? I believe that when the audience enters the theater, the piece has already started, right?
We are in the space already, so there is sound and movement. I think it's about relationships. It's about developing a relationship with ourselves, but also with the audience. I know there are some artists who would build the work saying, "I almost don't care about the audience—they have to find their own way there," but to me, it's important to warm up a relationship. And then it begins with the lights in the house, and it's only after five minutes or so that the house lights go out. It gives the audience a possibility of beginning a journey. It doesn't always work because some people get nervous and walk out, but at least I try to open that space. And once we are there, we can continue a journey. So halfway through the performance, there is really, like, a break where we close the circle—it's as if the audience, at that particular moment, is a bit outside our concern. We need to be among ourselves while keeping the audience as witnesses to this act of us just trying to find ourselves and trying to reconstruct the circle; then we'll come back to the audience. And at the end of the show, we are in the same position as the audience, looking in the same direction, so we become the first row looking at the stage. There are portraits of former political leaders of the country; you don't see a single woman anywhere. They are the fathers of the nations. We never talk of any mothers of the nations. We only have these portraits of the men who made this nation, whatever that means, and then portraits of ourselves: a final group picture. I hope that you can see some irony in this, a little bit of humor.
You returned to Congo in 2001 after eight years of choreographing and dancing abroad. How has the move changed your work?
The first thing that I learned and almost, yeah, I'd say the hard way—and which has been very, very healthy as far as approaching the work is concerned—was realizing that, somehow, nobody cares about the arts there. But people do care about seeing someone who believes in something in a context where it's so difficult to believe in anything. The situation is just so hard, and most of the youth only dream about crossing the border. For them, seeing someone who left Europe to come back to the country to try and develop something here is like, what is going on here? That led me into approaching the work in Congo as not only an aesthetic quest but also in terms of what does it mean to do this work here? What does it mean to call myself an artist in this context? What difference does it make? Those questions are in the background of everything that I do. I may be just exploring the same aesthetics and questions and obsessions over and over, but definitely something has changed, and that has been a profound thing. And then you go to just being in an environment where everyday there's something to remind you of the fact that, if you want to share your work, and that whoever is in front of you doesn't need to have those references about the history of the performing arts, they just want to experience something with you. If you can be able to propose a journey to them, that's what matters.
What are the circumstances like for you? Do you feel like you have to watch your back all the time and what you say?
Yes, yes. How do I say this: There are at least two lies in the name of my country, that is democratic and republic, so ideas and speech do not exactly circulate in the public space. Doing this kind of work is definitely, in a way, stepping up, and you never know what could happen. And beyond that, the fact that the work is recognized outside means that I'll draw attention and not necessarily for what I do, but I become like a public figure. The fact that the work is recognized in Europe and in America means that I can be taken seriously back home and that what I'm saying means something. Had I been just an unknown person, I can get away with anything, but with my status it's like, Hmmm what is he exactly saying? I meet the minister of culture, and you always hear something like, "You know, you are an ambassador of this country." That means what it means, but there is one thing that I think is very important to say in the middle of all that: to remember that ultimately it's not only about whatever message may be in the work, but it's also about the form and about attempting to get to some degree of poetry. This is a lesson that I personally learned from studying how artists from the former Soviet bloc responded to official censorship. It's also related to self-imposed censorship. You need to play with the form in the hope that, ultimately, censorship is always behind poetry. It's always trying to catch up with poetry, so if you continue being honest to yourself, you don't betray what you believe in, thanks to the form.
Will you stay in Congo?
Somehow, yes. Yes. For as long as possible, in terms of peace—if there's no more civil war and if I don't get personally threatened by one thing or another, I'm there. And that's why we are developing Studios Kabako, a very ambitious project. When I moved back to Congo, I went to Kinshasa, the capital city, because the country was still in the middle of a war, and my city, the city where I grew up, Kisangani, was under rebel control. I was based in Kinshasa for five years. I used to talk about Studios Kabako as a mental space: It's a space where we meet, share things, explore and sometimes invent things—we produce, but ultimately it's a space where it's possible to imagine possibilities in this country. I could afford to say that in Kinshasa because I had access to a physical space. But in 2006, when we moved to Kisangani, it was like, we need to make a space of our own, and then we started reflecting on what kind of space do we want to make? We want to make a space to show work, we want to make a space where we can produce work, but we also want to make a space that can serve as a meeting point for the civil society, which doesn't have a space. We had a debate going on around these questions. We ended up with a project of having one art center but in three locations in the city—three totally different neighborhoods—and each center specializes in one particular aspect. So one would just be for artists to develop work; another is more of a performing space and venue; and the third space is this civil-engagement space. We have launched that project with our own money—Studios Kabako's money comes essentially from touring and coproductions, so we put aside some money and we bought a piece of land and started building our artists' lab there. Because we're doing this with our own money, at this rate—if I still make work that interests presenters—it will take us ten years to build it. That's definitely a sign that we're there to stay.
Do you have any projects lined up at present?
I am in the process of producing Flamme's album that comes out in December. With Studios Kabako, we are not waiting until we have our own space to start working; for now, we rent a big house in the middle of the city, where we have our offices and storage space for lights and sound equipment, we have a recording studio, and also we have a dance-and-theater working space in the yard outside. When it's too hot, we don't work, and when it's raining, we don't work. Studios Kabako is not constructed yet, but the activities are there, and through this space that we rent, I can work, younger dancers can work, and the musicians—we are also producing a documentary film with a young filmmaker from Kisangani. That was the other thing about the project: not to restrict it to dance or theater. What really matters for me are artistic voices, and if I meet someone whose voice I feel a connection with, if there is a way in which we can make a little journey together, definitely I'll do it.
Clearly, you want to bring about the possibility of a different world. What kind of a role can an artist play in your society today?
First of all, art cannot save Congo, but art can save a few individuals. Maybe it has to do with this quest of touching individuals. The notion of individuals is so important because we grew up under a dictatorship, and the very nature of dictatorships is to suppress individuals—you are just part of a herd. Yet I believe that democracy can only happen when you have responsible individuals. Artists can intervene at that level where you start awakening something in individuals and have a network of people who are conscious of what is really going on and that they can take responsibility for. They can take charge, at least just for their own lives. It's also a question of scale; here around Studios Kabako, among the artists, the technical guys and the administrative people, we are a like a small team of 20. So that's already something that is happening, with 20 individuals who can begin to dream their lives differently, and then from this 20, we can touch more people. By being a part of a society or just sharing our work, we affect other people. But, again, I can only dream of that on the scale of one individual at a time.
You have said that you want to be known as a poet. What do you mean?
Sometimes I have this feeling that with my work there could be a tension between being a citizen who wants to be part of an action and being a creative artist. In that, when the citizen wants to take action for what it going on, somehow you have to be partisan. You have to pick sides. Sometimes I feel that, hey, maybe embracing all my contradictions is poetry; sometimes you just get there, as Walt Whitman said: "Do I contradict myself? Yes. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." So when you are in political action, you just cannot allow yourself to embrace all the contradictions. Yes, through this course of action, you close other doors, and yet with poetry, I can have that possibility of embracing all the complexity. When you read Shakespeare, even the violence of humans comes from the humanity in them—it's never black-and-white. That's what I mean. I'm trying to make work that can get to that. I don't know if I'll ever get there, but that's the ambition. That's the dream.
Faustin Linyekula/Studios Kabako presents more more more... future at The Kitchen October 12--15.