Kenya Comes to Yale

November 15, 2008

It wasn’t just the fact that Opiyo Okach is perhaps the lone contemporary dancer to come out of Kenya that was stirring. It was also the way he performed—the interior concentration as he simply stood, the gentle way he sank to his knees but kept his upper body erect. The look on his face was not saying, “Let me entertain you,” but rather, “Let me do what I do and every so often I will look to see if you’re still out there.” He had the air of someone from far away, from a culture different from ours. And yet there was something familiar too. He reminded me of Steve Paxton, the Judson-era dancer who went on to create contact improvisation. They both have an eerie kind of patience when they dancing alone, a serenity that can be subtly upset by mischief or worry. But where Paxton is quizzical, Okach bears the stamp of hardship. Or am I reading into that? One thing that’s very different is where in the body they initiate movement from. Paxton often leads with his head, as though the top of his head is setting the direction for the rest of the body. Okach seems to initiate almost from the knees, turning in and out and sinking and opening, pulling the rest of him down.

In this performance, which was part of the Festival of International Dance at Yale , engineered by Emily Coates and her World Performance Project at Yale, where she teaches, Okach showed two solos. The first,
No Man’s Gone Now,
was created by Julyen Hamilton, a British improviser now based in Barcelona—who has worked with Paxton. Wearing a suit with bare chest, Okach began with simple walking, and moved into squat and glides. He used strength to create softness.

The second,
Territories in Transgression: Border Border Express,
is Okach’s own, in collaboration with musician Alejandro Olarte, who did magnificent things with a guitar. Okach tries on a pair of shiny shoes, a hat, a head covering (like Abu Graib). Each thing changes him slightly. The shoes make him do the twist, just like an American party boy in the 60s. (In a post-performance talk he explains that this is a typical African move—a not so surprising surprise.) When he puts the hat on, which partly hides his face, he takes a few quick and quiet glances at us from underneath it. The outward serenity is broken by the music getting scratchy and explosive and scary and Okach moves faster, starting with a skittering of the feet as though the ground is too hot to touch. Suddenly he’s out of control, crashing to the floor, destabilizing everything. It happens without warning.