Applying for a U.S. visa to work with Kennesaw State University students, Senegalese choreographer Kaolack received yet another reminder about the relevance of his work.
Kaolack, whose artistic name is derived from the town of his birth north of The Gambia, was delayed in getting here, forcing the first of his interactive sessions with the KSU Dance Company to take place via Zoom.
It was just the latest example in his own life of how borders — coincidentally the title of the new piece he designed for KSU students to perform — can place artificial barriers in the way of interpersonal exchange, with uneven applications depending on one’s race or nationality.
“For me it was very important to extend people’s narrow vision of what they know about the world — the white way of seeing the Black African body,” says Kaolack.
Borders is a new work created for Sage, a contemporary showcase from the Department of Dance at KSU’s College of the Arts, set to take place on the evenings of Nov. 10-11.
The theme goes beyond the physical boundaries that separate people internationally, says assistant professor of dance Dasha Chapman, who tapped into her network to recruit Kaolack for a residency.
“The concept of borders also became a way of crossing differences in terms of dance genres or aesthetics, blurring lines and becoming more fulsome in our embodied expressions outside of binary understandings of gender — and also being just more inclusive and hospitable and welcoming in all these different ways,” Dr. Chapman said.
African dance, she says, is a genre that is rarely interrogated, despite its deep impact on the United States, first imported via slavery and more recently adopted in epoch-defining beats and movements.
“There’s a way that our U.S. popular culture is completely steeped in African dance and music traditions. I think our public awareness of that is very low,” she said.
This year happens to be the Year of Senegal, featuring the cultures, traditions and economic impact of the West African country with an all-year, campus-wide series of programs.
For student dancers, working with an African artist was a profound departure from the standard learning practice.
“It was a huge culture shock,” said Mackenzie Long, a senior from Dallas, Ga. “It was a really huge shift going from training where it’s pretty much all in the shoulders and being up and lifted to being very grounded and connected with the floor and those around you.”
Kaolack’s focus on legacy and ancestry — emphasizing the role of the all-too-ignored Black woman in history and society, as exemplified by the grandmother who raised him — also hit home, helping the dancers come together and build a family in their troupe, transcending their own diverse heritages.
“This is actually my first time working with a guest artist. We really got to work with him not only as a choreographer but also as a person, learning his background, how he cherishes family so much. It’s just profound and very astounding to work with him,” said Jazmyn Wright, a junior.
Born Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, Kaolack says he is a product of the blurring of lines, with a city-boy father from colonial French West Africa who married a girl from the small rural town of Kaolack in what he calls “Senegambia,” a portmanteau of the two African countries where he grew up.
He has also experienced the hard lines of identity up close, facing racism and problems being detained for having the wrong passport in the Czech Republic, where he lived and danced many years.
“To come here and become a choreographer is also a way to be an activist,” he said, noting that while some prefer to forget the past, he takes a different tack: “I’m here to bring the past in your face and just tell you what’s going on.”
For the students, getting a window on Kaolack’s experience was transformative.
“It’s really opened our eyes,” said Caleb Joyner, also a junior, who added that Kaolack’s trouble getting to the U.S. “added a drop of reality before we even started” about the reality of what they would be conveying through Borders.
Marsha Barsky, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Dance, jumped at the chance to support Dr. Chapman’s ambition to bring Kaolack in through the Year of Senegal program.
The over-arching Sage performance, compose of four numbers, will also feature the work of KSU choreographers hailing from India, Switzerland and the United States, an indirect benefit of the diversity of KSU’s faculty, she said.
As always, the dance department is focused on helping students see choreography as research and practice.
“We tend to work in contemporary concert dance; we don’t do a lot of classical re-staging of repertory, so students are always engaged in the process of making something new and involved in that work with either a guest artist or a choreographer,” Ms. Barsky said.
For Kaolack, this collaborative creativity is made possible by KSU’s focus on the country of his birth, though he wishes he would’ve had a month or more to help the students gain more grounding in African traditions.
“For me the best and greatest experience was to create something new — and sharing the experience with the students,” he said.
Breanna Pollock, a junior from Albany, Ga., hopes those who come to the show will bring an open mind, much like she had to do experiencing a new creative process.
“I had to shift my own ideology about dance process and how creating a piece happens, and I had to become more open-minded about how I did it,” she said. “I think a lot of people who are going to come to the show haven’t experienced dance in this way.”