For the week long first edition of the Lagos Contemporary Dance Festival, dancer/choreographer Quddus Onikeku and his Q Dance Centre ensemble brought a revival of the dance performance event Iwa L’ewa to the National Theatre, Iganmu on Saturday, 4th February.
Iwa L’ewa has had a storied and somewhat controversial run since its debut. In 2015, while showing at a photographic exhibition in Brussels, Belgium, the show was reportedly plagued by technical glitches that warranted calls for it to be shutdown midway. Onikeku was having none of it, and protested until the show was allowed to go on.
Judging from Friday’s presentation, Onikeku has taken some of the criticism in stride as the show, while not there yet in terms of technical and structural efficiency appears to have been improved upon to some extent.
Loosely translated as beauty in character, Iwa L’ewa seeks to endorse the maxim that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and that many times, to find the best in humans, one would have to dig deeper beyond physical attributes. Onikeku’s Iwa L’ewa rages against the machine that enforces standards and advocates a plurality and diversity of experiences and expressions.
The cast of Iwa L’ewa is peopled with both able bodied and physically challenged performers who bend their bodies in thrilling, beautiful ways and defy gravity too in service of their art. The show works because it is an African story with almost universal appeal. It isn’t merely interested in regurgitating stereotypes that paint a brutal, stark picture of the country, it also offers hope that humanity is yet redeemable and disability can be just as powerful in its expression if routed in proper directions.
The dance routines have been rehearsed and worked over to near perfection and the bodies of the dancers/actors have become weaponized as they slice through air and space, sound and spirit, intent on leaving a lasting impression with their audience.
These dance routines, powered by Onikeku’s emotive, arresting choreography are easily the best parts of the show, as they transcend the inadequacies in the writing and technical glitches that crop up one too many times. Constrained by budgetary limitations and technical deficiencies, the performers make do with clumsy microphone exchanges and slight delays in fixing sound equipment.
The writing could have done with a bit more detailed research especially in the areas of medical importance. The medical condition described by the character in the first vignette is likelier to produce a postural defect called Kyphosis instead of Scoliosis as concluded by the writer.
A second character narrates how he became semi-paralysed after he was administered the wrong injection by a less than qualified nurse following a febrile episode. In reality, it isn’t necessarily the wrong injection that would cause his paralysis, but what part of the buttocks it was administered, hitting a nerve and damaging it in the process.
These complains dilute but do not diminish the ultimate power of Iwa L’ewa as entertaining piece of art and as stark social commentary effective for advocacy. The actors are in superb form, from the engaging first arc to the impressive second part where the actor who has one disabled leg keeps up and even outpaces his colleagues in terms of perfecting the demanding physical routines, to the rousing finish. Their struggles of the characters that people Iwa L’ewa are singular but there is also a unity of purpose as the dancers merge and weave and interlock their bodies to create a visual spectacle. The colour coded costumes and use of lighting make the showcase easy on the eyes and the accompanying music is in turns haunting and jubilant.
Iwa L’ewa may yet be a few steps from perfection but Onikeku and his team have crafted a potent, visceral affirmation of life, one that mirrors real life and reveals ways in which humanity can be better. Isn’t that the point of art?