Clement Cogitore adapts Jean Philippe Rameau’s 1735 four-part opera-ballet’ ‘Les Indes Galantes’ (The amourous indies) into a six-minute short film. Each entrée in Rameau’s work is a short story unified by the theme of love between exotic people in exotic places, such as Peru, North America, the Ottoman Empire and Persia. At the time of its premiere, the opera was a victorious display of French Enlightenment over the “Indes,” which then referred to the world beyond Europe. Cogitore adapts the final act of the entrée “Les Savages,” itself inspired by Indian tribal dances of Louisiana performed by Metchigaema chiefs in 1723 Paris. Rameau’s opera is steeped in racism, slavery and many moments offensive to modern audiences, but in just six minutes Cogitore subverts the discrimination, turning this racist power dynamic on its head through the power of krump dancing.
Krump dancing is an art form originating in Los Angeles during the 1990s. It was born in the aftermath of the LA riots, Rodney King’s brutal police beating caught on camera, and the police repression these events triggered. Krump dancing formed as an intense, fast paced and sharp fullbodied expression that took in the grief, suffering and oppression of African Americans and exerted it back out into life via indomitable energy, transforming the body into a psychical, social and political entity.
Cogitore is outfitted in accolades, winning the Marcel Duchamp Prize for Contemporary Art in 2018, holding solo shows at Palais de Tokyo, Pompidou, MoMa and SeMA Bunker, all of which speaks to his masterful combination of film, video, installation and photography in an art practice uniquely developed at the meeting point between cinema and contemporary art. Cogitore’s restaging of ‘Indes des Galantes’ is informed by his documentary making, where much of the scene is improvised and Cogitore’s role of director is expressed in the managing. Without predetermination, Cogitore’s approach unearths an authentic experience that can be captured only in the candid.
The starting shot pans out from darkness, revealing a dimly lit ambiguous scene that could be an alley way or a dark dance hall. The location is unimportant; what is important is that we have been invited into a intimate conversation, the kind that happens under the veil of the privacy that only the veil of the night lends, the kind that happens only between friends who trust each other with their vulnerabilities. There is a large group of people, forty or more, although it is difficult to tell because the camera perspective stays in the centre of the gathering giving us a personal vantage point rather than that of an observer. A drum beats rhythmically in the far distance, slowly becoming louder and nearer.
A man dressed in a black hoodie worn under a faux leather jacket with a ski hat hiding his face breaks into the circle. The drumbeat is here; it’s close; it’s in his fingers; it’s the convex between each of his knuckles, which change his hands into stiff claws. This rigidity seems to spread to the rest of his body as each limb starts to move with determination. Every gesture of the dancer is a muscular attack, sharp but evanescent, vanishing as quickly as it takes shape. This is krump dancing.
“I didn’t want the dancers to be ornamental accessories to the protagonists,” said Cogitore. “They needed to participate in the action, to have real roles.” Cogitore brought the power of krump dancing to the opera with the guiding experience of Bintou Dembélé, the first black female and first black French choreographer to be engaged by the Paris Opera in its 350-year history. Ms. Dembélé said that these forms, unlike the decorative divertissements of Rameau’s time, “resonate with what’s going on in the street. They developed as a means of survival.”
Jo'Artis Ratti, one of the founders of krump dancing, intended to create movements that would facilitate a way to cope with grief, create art and a bodily expression of the grotesque overwhelming oppression he and many others in his neighbourhood were escaping. Between gang violence and police brutality the early krump dancers were creating a safe space to express themselves away from persecution.
The dancer in the centre of the krump circle continues to convulse rhythmically as we begin to see “a man palpably baring his pain, anger and rebelliousness and then holding his peace,” writes Sarah L. Kaufman in her Washington Post article ‘In pain and rage, a protester approached police. And then he danced,’ which reported on Jo’Ratti’s krumping in protest against the killing of George Floyd in Los Angeles this month. It is also an apt description of Cogitore’s krump dancer. It is palpable, the same raw emotions running in both men’s bodies, countries and years apart.
He keeps his head down still hidden in his ski hat; there is a sadness in the rounding of his shoulders as the beat of the drum sounds like those heartbeats lost. Rapid-fire freestyle movements take hold of him; as his energy rises so too do the dancers surrounding him. Another dancer joins the circle.
If movement were words, krump would be poetry slam, according to Professor of Contemporary Dance at UCLA, Taisha Paggett. The two mettlesome men battle each other with gesticulations that flicker between anger and pantomime. The father of slam poetry Gil Scott Heron released the poem “Whitey’s on the Moon” in 1970 when the Apollo 11 mission aimed to place American astronauts on the moon. Many felt that Nasa’s moon-shot was an absurd ‘inhuman priority’ while poor children went hungry in America. An excerpt from Scott-Heron’s political poem captures this sentiment.
The man just upped my rent last night.
('cause Whitey's on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
I wonder why he's upping me?
('cause Whitey's on the moon?)
Traces of a poetry slam run between the dancer’s exaggerated movements and slap-stick jesting. Scott-Heron and the two krumpers use quip jest to express inequality, the absurd levels minority communities have in the past and still do experience. It was said that the cost of feeding an Apollo astronaut per day doubled that of the cost of feeding an American child living in poverty. Gil Scott-Heron is a poet and singer-songwriter best known for his politically charged work in the 1970s. Many consider him a forefather of modern hip-hop and rap. Gil Scott Heron’s adopted son describes the late Scott as the most influential man in black music because of his self-determination in the face of persecution. “I think he was courageous to bare his soul the way he did.” Whether the issue was black political power or nuclear power, Scott-Heron didn't mince words.
“What you see is something like improvised sampling, images and poses taken from the world and threaded into a polyrhythmic frenzy.” Polyrhythm is found in both dance music. Another krump dancer explodes into the centre, now all three bodies are in a polyrhythmic frenzy.
Each krump dancer is unique, with each reflecting on personal experiences and emotions resulting in new combinations. There is no hierarchy in krump dancing. Innovation is greatly valued, and because expression is more important than choreography, innovation is a natural outcome.
At 4:02 minutes of the YouTube video of Cogitore’s ‘Les Indes Galantes’ a new dancer enters the centre. The pantomime of the two dancers who proceeded her is gone, instead the woman dances via a different set of rules. Her feet seem glued to the floor as the rest of her body moves in staccato shapes. Her arms positioned like an opening of a bowl form a house around her body, which then fluidly ripples down through her, creating a wave like motion. She lifts her arms and thrusts a fist in the air but hits nothing; she isn’t meant to, it’s not a punch, it is a symbol, a symbol of political rhetoric--she makes the ‘Black Power’ sign with her clenched fist. At 4:02 minutes of a YouTube video of Nina Simone singing “I Wish I Knew How it Felt to be Free” live at Montreux, Switzerland in 1976, Simone sings in staccato:
I got news for you,
I already know
Jonathon Livingston Seagull aint got nothing on me!
Before this moment in the performance, Simone sings about how she wished she knew how it felt to be free, which is also the title of the song.
Well I wish
I could break free
Of all the chains
I wish you could see
What it’s like to be me
Then you would agree
That every man deserves to be free
Simone’s bursts of voice singing “FREE… FREE…” is a reckoning moment in the song where she is emotionally done talking about freedom in the hypothetical Simone instead sings sharply and clearly of her freedom in the actual. It is at this moment that Simone ousts the title of the song “I Wish I Knew How it Felt to be Free” for “I already know how it feels to be free!”.
In her article, “Nina Simone and the redefining of the freedom song of the 1960s,” Tammy Kernodle, a musician and scholar in the areas of African American music at Miami University, says that this song is the defining moment of the freedom song of the 1960s. Kernodle’s article explores this moment of the song as the catalyst for a new type of freedom song in the black freedom movement during the 1960s, highlighting the lyrical content and structure, which reflects the rhetorical and geographical shift of the transition from Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent, southern-based civil rights movement of the late 1950s and the mid-1960s to the militant black power nationalist movement of the late 1960s. “Simone found the formula that would define her freedom songs over the next five years—create songs that reflected the artist’s true identity… and write texts that were real in their presentation of world events.”
The young female krump dancer’s sequence of sharp movements and concentrated power ends with her raising her closed fist, a display in physical rhetoric of the black power movement Simone sang of decades earlier. Each of the dancer’s moves is a reflection of their true identity. Just as Simone’s career was steeped in the era of the civil rights movement, in which she expressed herself with an immediacy in her lyrics, so too are these dancers bringing their experience of police persecution and gang violence into efficacious dance.
At the end of her Montreux performance, Nina Simone raises her right hand, closes her fist, and with the other continues to play the piano. She sings of being a bird and how, if she were, she would fly to the sun--her right hand is still in the air as if she is holding the sun. Simone finishes with one more verse “Yes.. yes I know… Yes I know how it feels to be free…”
Yes, the climactic rendition “The Savages” in Clement Cogitore’s remake of “Les Indes Galantes” still is how it was in the year it was written: a thrilling experience for a largely white audience of an exotic unknown dance presented as a spectacle of its foreignness. However, Cogitore transforms this racist power dynamic through the syncopated, rapid-fire freestyle of krump dance. This rendition is now an assertion of the fulness, the sufficiency of the community performing it. The dancers don’t need the white gaze to exist; they never did. Instead, they meet the gaze and go on dancing.
Black lives matter.
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