Contempo Physical Dance Debuts ‘Agbara Obirin’ at The O’Shaughnessy

Words by Alejandra Iannone | Images by Bill Cameron

Contempo Physical Dance is a Twin Cities-based dance company that self-identifies its aesthetic as “contemporary Afro-Brazilian dance fusion.” The company presented the world premiere of Agbara Obirin on February 22 and 23 at The O’Shaughnessy in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I attended their closing night performance.

Agbara Obirin was choreographed by guest choreographer Nildinha Fonseca, who is the Associate Director of Brazil’s Balé Folclórico da Bahia. There were eight dancers in the piece – seven women and artistic director Marciano Silva dos Santos. They danced to original, percussive music by José Ricardo. The understated lighting, which often cast shadows over the dancers’ faces, was designed by Mike Grogan and dos Santos designed the colorful and flattering costumes.

Throughout Agbara Obirin, the performers whirled through the space, scooping the air with their arms and leaping and rolling across the floor. Their feet moved percussively on the floor, their steps sometimes making sounds. Often, they faced out to the audience and danced in a large, pyramid-shaped group. When dancing in a duet or smaller group, they were moved in tandem or as mirror images.

Performed in unison or near-unison can sometimes highlight our personal idiosyncrasies and predispositions. As I watched Agbara Obirin, the cast appeared to have a varied interpretation of Fonseca’s choreography and phrasework. Fonseca set this piece on the dancers in September and October 2017. I am curious about the rehearsal process for this project after she left. Who was responsible for ironing out details like hand placement, focus, and spacing? Was it left to the rehearsal director (who was also a cast member)?

At a post-performance discussion, I learned that Ricardo’s  music was composed after the dance was created and the composer adjusted the music according to Fonseca’s needs. Apparently, the dancers and Fonseca had a different understanding of how to count music and where a downbeat was located. This might explain why, at various times throughout the piece, it appeared that one dancer was serving as the leader and all others were following her timing. That approach kept much of the ensemble work from achieving true unison.

From the program, I learned that Agbara Obirin translates in English to Strong Women and that Fonseca’s choreography was based on “the research in dances of the African matrix, with poetic dialogues based on stories of African gods… .”  I was not able to pick up on those specific narratives or major plot points. But the title of this piece had primed me for a dance where women were placed in a central and powerful position, and the imagery suggested water, birth, physical struggle, and violence.

I could not help but notice that about half of the dancers on stage were performing with ankle braces, foot wraps, and other supportive gear. Dance is hard work and hard work is hard. And, of course, certain repertory may cause injuries to flare up. Still, I found myself worried for the dancers. What was the training process leading us to this weekend of performances? Was it the same for all of the dancers? What means are being taken to ensure the performers’ health? There is an important difference between strength and stubbornness, or suffering.

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