by Kathy Noble
Kathy Noble is a writer and curator based in New York, currently working as Curator and Manager of Curatorial Affairs at Performa.
A slim young shirtless man, wearing loose Nike knee length shorts, stands under heavy rain in the street laughing as cards rush past behind him on the dark night-time street, illuminated only by the vehicles lights. His friends, off screen, laugh and cajole. The boy frowns, hands on his hips as if to protest their chants as rainwater glistens on his lithe torso. A moment later, when music starts, the boy begins to dance, grinning as the rain rolls off his body. This scene is one of many shot on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, to create Dancehall Weather, 2018, a film by artist and choreographer Cecilia Bengolea, created collaboratively with the protagonists who appear in it, shot by Edilson Lombares and Justin Meekel, edited using software that creates an arbitrary selection of four years of footage. Another scene depicts Bengolea’s long-term collaborator Erika Miyauchi, a classically trained ballet dancer from Japan dancing in the dark on a suburban street lined with identical board houses lit by street lights—Miyauchi interweaves classical ballet steps with dancehall phrases, swinging her rear downwards between her knees, before springing up to elevate herself on point shoes. Other scenes depict groups of male dancers moving in unison on dusty streets or abandoned buildings to create moments of cinema that’s seemingly improvised choreography is made unreal by the epic cinematic settings.
To Bengolea Jamaican Dancehall culture—the subject of Dancehall Weather—is a figurative experience that narrates the lives of the people who contribute to its physical and social formations. Dancehall music evolved in the 70s and 80s in Jamaica, beginning as a bolder elaboration on reggae beats and lyrics. In the late 90s and early 00s Dancehall went globally mainstream via artists such as Sean Paul and Beenie Man, who created a moorish version that incorporated the addictive motifs of pop music, with its laconic lyrics and rolling rhythms. The dancehall scene has since become notorious for a kind of aggressive masculinity; it is widely critiqued for its misogynistic lyrics and dance gestures that promote an extreme form of heterosexual relations, that many would claim creates the perfect climate for abuse—an accusation that could, arguably, be proved by the Jamaica’s high assault and rape statistics for women.
Yet Dancehall is a wildly joyful culture, one that has produced some of the most influential music of the last half a century. Bengolea describes Dancehall’s energy as a kind of elevation akin to the elevation of classical ballet: “Classical ballet and Dancehall share some similar motifs, some parallel forms. Elevation is crucial to both of them. With ballet, it’s a concrete kind of elevation, you do it with your ballet shoes, on the toes. Dancehall’s aim is a kind of spiritual elevation, even when, with old school, the physical orientation is towards the ground. Whereas with the new school, the emphasis is more upward, there’s a lot bouncing and lifting in the moves… Its meaning goes way beyond sex or killing: it combines the spiritual with the humorous. Anyone can, and does, create new steps just from their everyday actions. It’s a kind of infinite library that is limitless.”
Cecilia Bengolea first travelled to Jamaica in 2014 to research a project she was making with a dub composer and was instantly fascinated by the Dancehall artists she met: “It was everywhere, in the streets, at parties. And it is entirely different from dub and reggae. The artists say that dancehall is the punk brother of reggae. It has a faster beat and rough explicit lyrics. The dance is equally explicit, but it is also a response to everyday life.” Bengolea quickly immersed herself in Dancehall culture, attending street parties, taking classes, and befriending the dancers she met, and has since returned annually for several months a year. That same year she invited Damion BG and Giddy Élite to Paris develop new choreography together: this was the beginning of a four year relationship with them, and numerous other dancers as artistic collaborators, that resulted in live works and films in Kingston, New York, London, Paris, and Dijon, amongst other places. Bengolea, who is known for combining ballet, contemporary dance, pop, club and striptease culture, often in collaboration with François Chaignaud, studied anthropological dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she explored the ideas of Eugenio Barba with teacher Guillermo Angelelli from the Odin Theatre, initiating her ongoing interest in working with different communities and their dancers. Bengolea has stated: “I feel a culture by making and inhabiting their gestures, rhythms, and the breath they use… to share the spirit...”
Bengolea’s and Jeremy Dellar’s Bom Bom’s Dream, 2016, follows (Japanese born, Kingston inhabitant) dancehall queen Bom Bom as she takes a giant fluorescent green chameleon for a walk, twerks on a cloud, and demonstrates an exceptional ability to rotate her legs as she stands on her head. Bom Bom’s acrobatic feats are mesmerizing to watch. When she is joined by Craig Black Eagle, a Jamaican male dancer, they role around together, dry humping, simulating sex in numerous positions, athletically manoeuvring from a wheel barrow style position whilst Bom Bom is still on her head, via doggy style, to classic missionary, until Bom Bom is flipped over to lie her tummy as the man crushes her from behind. The movements are stylized with humour as Bom Bom happily manipulates her body to offer up her rear in a choreographed form of “daggering”—the phenomenon of public sexual simulation that became popular in 00s Dancehall scenes in Kingston.
Youtube offers a spectrum of daggering (a word that conjures an image of piercing or penetrating something): from highly stylized performances of sexual maneuvers, to slapstick humping, jiggling and grinding, to aggressive, sometimes violent, slamming of male bodies into female bodies. The women present their asses, legs and crotches, as if to goad the men into action. As they stand on their heads, legs spread wide apart, shaking their buttocks, luring the man into conquering them, it seems as much as game as it is a dance or foreplay. Their movements also mirror the classic positions, choreographies and scenarios of heterosexual pornography online—and it comes as no surprise that daggering evolved in tandem to the Internet. The Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation defined daggering as a “colloquial term of phrase used in dancehall culture as a reference to hardcore sex or what is popularly referred to as 'dry' sex, or the activities of persons engaged in the public simulation of various sexual acts and positions," and banned music and video which promoted daggering. Which leads back to the question: does the performance of aggressive sexuality lead to a proliferation in sexual violence? Or does this public performance of an aggressive form of sexuality empower its protagonists, regardless of their gender? Without disregarding the socially problematic aspects of aggressive masculinity, Dancehall clearly creates an outlet for sexual expression, a space in which to perform, and enact, relationships, gestures, moods, experiences, and come together socially and emotionally without restraint.
Questions regarding cultural appropriation are also pertinent to ask in regard to Bengolea’s latest work. What does it mean to inhabit another’s culture? Does this fulfill a narcissistic urge, to quite literally become, to devour the other? Or should it be considered an artistic choice akin to sampling in music—a mode of operating within the visual arts that began in the post-modernist media age of the 60s and 70s and hyper-accelerated to become the norm during the digital revolution. On one hand, the contemporary artist is a dilettante, using any material, any idea, any culture, often without expertise or intimate knowledge, outsourcing the difficult skill sets to other specialists to provide validity. However, on the contrary, Bengolea has gone great lengths to develop an expertise and understanding of another culture, by fully immersing herself into the Dancehall world, collaborating with its numerous artists at the sites and spaces they frequent.
Why certain types of music and dance become globally popular is as much entwined in the politics of late Capitalism as it is in the talent of the musician, producer, or DJ, or the taste of the listener. However, like most people—and as a child of the last pre-Internet generation—my own music tastes were formed via my friendships, my peers, and my social experiences clubbing in North London. My early years, from thirteen to sixteen, were shaped by the indie grunge scene of Camden. Techno, drum and bass, and a touch of jungle, soon filled their spot as dancing until sunrise in the soft cuddle of an ecstasy haze was infinitely more pleasurable than watching twenty-something men with long limp dark hair head bang their sweat onto the dance floor, before finger banging underage girls. Around that time a school friend (who went on to become a Dancehall DJ as one part of The Heatwave) and my need to chase a skater boy whose name I can’t remember led me to a club night in Covent Garden at the Africa Centre. The music was mostly Hip Hop, but as the night progressed DJs played a spattering of mainstream Dancehall, leading me to a newly tantalizing way of grinding my behind into older men’s crotches. Was sex wrapped up in this experience? Yes, but sex was, and still is, present in every music scene, and dance scene, and social scene I encountered, as it should be, because sexual desire is fundamental to human social life; and at the time, this Dancehall version felt extremely liberating. The numerous male Dancehall producers that have been accused of misogyny, alongside the peacock-like public performance of sex, are easy to dismiss as detrimental to the aims of progressive gender politics. However, the misogyny of the Indie Rock scene of the 90s, and the sexual aggression of the men who populated that scene in London, was thinly veiled by an emo mirage.
Bengolea describes the languages of dance as viral, something that has always disseminated across the world through music, dances, parties, and clubs—Soul only became Northern when it arrived in the clubs of Wigan and Manchester in the 70s—and now happens more instantaneously via the Internet, as people have never been to the Caribbean assimilate the style, trends and movements remotely. Bengolea addresses the acute complexity of social and sexual politics within Dancehall to create work that is as unsettling as it is beautiful, by intensely collaborating and inhabiting its world: “It’s like a language that you talk... Some of my dancers I don’t know very well, but we can communicate, and we immediately understand each other, through this language. From different parts of the world, we produce one body… There’s this element of Dancehall which is not about aggression but resistance. In a way, we are fighting together.”
Bengolea’s regular collaborators include: Craig Black Eagle, Damion BG, Erika Miyauchi, Oshane Overload Skankaz, Nick Black Eagle, Francois Chaignaud, Shanky Equanoxx, Larry Equanoxx, Prince Overload Skankaz, Dancehall Wassi, Pretty Pretty Sticky Wine, Joelle Williams, Navian Eqquanoxx, Shaky Black Eagle, Jay Black Eagle, Alex Mugler, Shelly Belly, and Racoon Bermuda.