Dancing on the Edge: Zab Maboungou marries philosophy with physicality in Wamunzo
Philosophy lies at the centre of Zab Maboungou’s practice as a choreographer, writer, and educator.
The celebrated Quebec-based dance artist, who was born in France and raised in the Republic of the Congo (a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville), is eager to talk about this as well as the impact that Africa is having on global culture.
“So much effort has been put into separating Africa from the rest of the world,” Maboungou tells the Straight by phone from Montreal in advance of two performances of Wamunzo at Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge festival. “But the reality is that modernity in the West wouldn’t be modernity without Africa. It is fused by Africa all over the place.”
The daughter of a French mother and Congolese father, Maboungou observes African influences in jazz, hip-hop, rap, and visual arts. She even sees the effects in ways people of African ancestry in North America talk and gesture to one another.
The founder of Zab Maboungou/Compagnie Danse NYATA NYATA notes that these expressions are adopted by white people all the time.
In particular, Maboungou cites African dance as an art form that has influenced practitioners in the West. It’s something she grew up with in the African forest in the vicinity of the Baka and Twa people, a.k.a. “pygmies”.
“I like to call them the best musicians in the world because of the way they sing and the way they play music using everything in the environment,” Maboungou says.
At the heart of her approach is creating rhythms between the body and the mind, which she extensively researched in her book Heya: An poetic, historical and didactic treatise of African Dance.
Perhaps because her mother died when she was young, Maboungou says that she learned at a young age to differentiate herself from events, people, nations, and society. She also came to appreciate the importance of being responsible for her own actions in a world constantly in transformation.
“These ideas of ethics and responsibility are at the core of what I do artistically,” she says. “I do not separate aesthetics from ethics.”
Maboungou believes that those who think in a linear way might conclude that this means incorporating social commentary into her choreography. But that’s certainly not the case.
“From my perspective, it’s too simplistic,” she says. “I don’t want to be sociological in that way in my choreography.”
Rather, she prefers to explore how to really learn to negotiate one’s posture in the world, rather than taking it for granted.
“I like to think that space does not wait for us,” Maboungou declares. “You have to negotiate that space. It’s not just given to you.”
She emphasizes that this is integrally linked to ethics, as well as to physicality and energy.
“It has to do with your capacity to be present in the world,” she notes. “And trust me, it’s not so easy to be present in the world.”
This is why music is so important, particularly drumming sounds that she grew up with in Africa. To her, the way these sounds vibrate and resonate structures a space, not only for her as a performer but also for audiences. And that’s something hardly anyone realizes.
“They just think of the drum and they hear ‘boom, boom, boom, boom’,” Maboungou says.
Wamunzo projects interior thoughts through the body
The show that she's bringing to Vancouver, Wamunzo, literally means "internal affairs", she reveals.
The choreography focuses on what she describes as a paradox—addressing how the interior and very intimate existence of a person is projected into space.
Maboungou says that Wamunzo might be considered a solo from a western point of view, but she doesn't see it that way. That's because of the presence of the three musicians: Elli Miller Maboungou, Lionel Kizaba, and Bruno Martinez.
"I'm a choreographer who works with music a lot," Maboungou says. "Therefore, I consider the musicians as important as myself on-stage."
As a philosopher, Maboungou says that she's always aware of the relationship between the body and thoughts.
"Whatever piece—whatever creation I’m dealing with—it’s really, all the time, how we think [about] things in the world, and how that's expressed in our posture in the world," she states.