Dance review: Somewhere at the beginning, Arts House

An autobiographical solo work from a performer considered the mother of contemporary African dance.

Arts House continues to display exceptional curatorial class in its contributions to the dance biennial FRAME. French director Mikaël Serre and West African modern dance pioneer Germaine Acogny made the stage their own in Somewhere at the beginning. This mixed media performance of protected photographs, custom-designed text, movement and theory delivered a postcolonial twist on the Greek roots of dramatic art. This twist came through the autobiographical storytelling of Acogny herself, who went back to her West African roots to deliver a pathos-rich celebration of the promises and pitfalls of multiculturalism.

The promises were understated but stylish. As Acogny performed her own routine, she could be an architect deconstructing a doll’s house or a French philosopher taking a sentence apart only to put it back together again. Her dance was a commentary on the story revealed in text, images and sound behind her. A motif of her making the shape of a bird with her body suggested the sensation of flying that could only come from free expression.

But not all expressions of freedom allow us to fly, and not every society has a moral code that allows us to be equally free without hurting our integrity in the pursuit of truth. This pitfall was illustrated by an autobiographical story that could be Acogny’s personal narrative, as much as a West African twist on the black Medea Acogny referenced in the most emotive sequence in the show. 

Whether it’s a society like Senegal, where, as Somewhere at the beginning revealed, a woman’s will is subjugated to that of her husband or her father, or a society like Australia’s, in its failure to deal with the migration crisis and its consequences, this multicultural dance extravaganza reached across time and place to point out that freedom never comes without a price. 

The parts of the show that are nakedly autobiographical were as harrowing as they were affecting. When Acogny was born and a dove appeared on the window sill, her neighbours interpreted this to mean that her mother, a Yoruban priestess, had returned. So began a story that encompassed African voodoo, a symbolic set of knives, abandoned marriages, journeys over oceans and stories of conversion that may have been forced or may have been undertaken in a spirit of youthful earnestness. It was a story that never allowed you forget the pointed end of the truth while allowing you to keep an open mind as to what the truth could be.

Read: Dance review: RED, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

A photograph of Acogny’s father, who died in 1979, provided a poetic focal point in a production where images turned to text, which turned again into mirages. Originally developed in Paris and in Australia with the assistance of the French Embassy, the stylishly designed Somewhere at the beginning showed why Acogny has earned her reputation as the mother of contemporary African dance, and reminded viewers that there is more to motherhood than being free as a bird. 

Somewhere at the beginning
Director: Mikaël Serre
Germaine Acogny
Arts House, North Melbourne

Somewhere at the beginning was performed on 29 March – 1 April 2023 as part of FRAME: a biennial of dance.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin