He is perhaps Nigeria’s, most decorated, internationally renowned choreographer, dancer, as well as being the Chairman of the National Advisory Council, Dance Guild of Nigeria (GOND). His dance career started in the dance troupes of Bishop Clarke’s Central School, Queen of Apostles’ Seminary, Nigerian Christian Secondary School, all in Abak, and became a permanent member of the award-winning South Eastern State and later Cross River State Government dance contingents to national festivals in Nigeria from 1971-1975. Appointed Principal Dancer, Choreography Assistant, Student Demonstrator-in-Dance in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Calabar, he later became a Dance Lecturer and Choreographer in the same institution and a Sessional Dance Teacher at the Laban Centre in London between 1979 and 1991. He is the first and only Nigerian to be appointed into the Federal Government Civil Service structure as a dance expert.
A recipient of a number of scholarships, including the Cross River State Government Scholarship; Commonwealth Academic Scholarship; United States Information Agency Sponsorship to International Choreographers Residency Program of the American Dance Festival and Voluntary Visitors Programme, he has created over 70 works some of which include: Ndem Mmong; The Defilemnt; New Generation; Ariagha-Umo-Nkoriko; We, The Dead; Song of the Sea, Abaikpa Ideghe Akang Iba, Fire of Peace; New Frontiers; Flames of the Niger; The Water Basket; One Earth, One People; Rites (Rights) of Passage. Damsel; Dawn;
He has served as consultant to arts councils of Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Lagos, Adamawa and Nasarawa states apart from extensive works with the other thirty-two arts councils in Nigeria.
His published works include: Nigeriana and Rainbow Over the Niger; Mbarra; Inyene; Long Walk to a Dream; I am the Woman; The Gods Are So Silent; Poems Across Borders; Akon; Critical Perspectives on Dance in Nigeria (co-edited with Ahmed Yerima and Bakare Ojo Rasaki); and several scholarly contributions in professional theatre journals worldwide.
A widely travelled choreographer, he is the Holder of the Medal of the City of Shimizu, Japan, and has been cited in several biographical publications including Marquis’ Who’s Who in the World; Who’s Who in Entertainment; American Biographical Institute’s International Directory of Distinguished Leadership.
He holds B.A. (Hons) Theatre Arts, University of Calabar and M. A. Dance Studies (Choreography, Sociology of Dance and Dance History) Laban Centre, London and other dance related training.
He choreographed the impressive Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 8th All-Africa Games, Abuja, 2003; Opening Ceremony of the Abuja Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2003.
He is the most decorated NAFEST choreographer and dance practitioner. He is also credited with the dance and choreographic consultancy at The Heir Apparent, Nigeria’s first and official Television Reality Show.
Meet Arnold Benjamin Udoka, the Assistant Artistic Director of the Abuja National Carnival and Dance Director of the National Troupe of Nigeria, as he talks about his choice of career, dance in Nigeria, his family, and many more. Excerpts:
Who is Arnold Udoka?
Arnold Udoka is an Anang man from Akwa Ibom State, and a Nigerian who went to school, took to dance first as a hobby and then finally as a career and who has created many dances, taught dance in Nigerian universities, and at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance of the University of London Goldsmiths’ College (United Kingdom), and now is the director dance, National Troupe of Nigeria and is also into choreography. And that is all he has done both for himself as a scholar and dance as a profession as an element in the civil service and also as a career. So he’s a career choreographer and a public choreographer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Professional background and recent productions
Well my recent productions have been various and varied as in some productions I am part of some productions and at other productions I handle everything, anchor it, direct, choreograph and produce by the troupe. My recent production was the performance by the National Troupe at the commissioning of the new African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which delegation was led by President Goodluck Jonathan and the minister for Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, High Chief Edem Duke involving the co-ordination of all the other troupes that we invited from other parts of Africa, under the auspices of the National Troupe of Nigeria which I was head and interestingly I was the head of the choreography and we handled that to celebrate the whole of Africa. At that level we have been able to take dance to the level of diplomacy. Again, by October last year I was able to put up my own package to celebrate 51 years of Nigeria’s Independence, with the work titled Akpaturo: The Summary, which was a selection of six of my works that have national character and identity and address the issue of national unity, the challenges of this country, the dynamics of politics and cultural changes, the effect of colonialism and how the art can help to re-integrate us as a people and re-integrate our culture. And December last year, I put up a Christmas show to celebrate the yuletide for Nigeria; those are some of the latest productions within the last six or eight months.
Are you working on any production lately?
Well, at the moment, the production I’m working on is going to Lebanon. For the first time we are taking our dances to the Middle East. But of course we have performed in Algeria, but this is the first time we are taking our dances into core Middle East zones. We are performing in Beirut at the end of this month (June 2012). That’s what I’m packaging on at the moment, which is the compilation of some of the beautiful dances you can find in Nigeria now, out of over 8000 dancers in Nigeria, we have taken these few to Beirut, in Lebanon that’s what we are working at the moment.
Where do you draw your inspirations from?
I actually draw my inspiration from the culture and people of Nigeria and they have been the basis, the real source of my inspiration. Their cultural challenges, the vibrancy of our culture, the beauty of our dances, the history behind our dances, the ideology that founded them, they thrill me, they excite me. The fact that they were developed civilizations well before the advent of colonization and those civilizations were being phased out but certain elements of that civilization are refusing to go and one of such is the dance and they remain the chief source of our identity and that inspires me so much to be proud of the history; a history that has been in existence for so long and nobody seems to remember; or people seem to ignore. That history inspires me.
On a personal level, as a choreographer and in terms of NAFEST I don’t think there is any choreographer that has won as many awards as I have won in NAFEST. In the history of NAFEST, I have won about ten different gongs, As of 1974 I won the silver gong after Ogunde’s gold gong in the contemporary dance category when I was about 15 years old, and of course the choreographer of my state. As from 1988 I was able to win 2 gold gongs, 2 silver gongs and 3 bronze gongs. Of recent, in 2009/2010, the gold gongs of Nasarawa dance drama, I created the dances for them as a consultant, and they came out as gold gong winners; and so a least I have won about 4 gold, 3 silver and 4 bronze and there is no choreographer that has won that much in the history of Nigeria.
What is the beauty of the Nigerian Dance?
The beauty of Nigerian dance is the philosophy behind them; the philosophy behind them is such that you find out that man is nothing without his culture, and man is nothing without his nature and without pulling the beauty of movements around him, without considering his environment and geography, those informing spirits of his environment, those motifs that sustain his life; that build relationship between him and man, him and nature, and between him and the deity; whatever that deity is, whether it is from the water, land, hills, the ability to capture this holistic feeling and philosophy, that’s the beauty of the Nigerian dance and all African dances. But Nigeria, with a population of 15 million, over 600 different cultures, the dance are too much and you find that the people already base their philosophy of dances on this holistic man and nature, man and divinity, so the dance are the dances of people who want to live a symbiotic life with nature.
Do you think it is possible to teach a non- African the African dance?
In time past, it was not possible, because the dances were shrouded in secrecy, even the social dances, their steps were shrouded in secrecy. Well I have said in a recent interview that the legacy I want to leave behind for the Nigerian dance universe and the universe is to bring signs into the dance, the capacity to be able to bring signs into devising techniques that our dances are based on, which will make it easy to break down the dance and easy teach them, first as alphabets, as then as words, and then as sentences; before we know how to put this together to create the symbols. The symbolism of the dance was shrouded in mystery and that is what I wanted to disintegrate and to emancipate so that the teacher can know to speak about the dance, he’ll know that it is not just a movement, it is a powerful cultural statement, a deep philosophical statement embodied in symbols. And so it is possible to teach the dances now. It would be better for the colleges of education, the National Board on Technical Education, the ministry of education, national policy on education, all of these organizations are able to sit down and look at the possibilities of raising our dances beyond the peripheries of intellectualism, academism, beyond the peripheries of intellectual discourse and bring them to the centre stage of intellectual discussion. You will be so shocked on how much we can use even Mr President’s concept of transformation agenda, if we can apply them to our dances, you can imagine what our dances can stand to produce, you can imagine how many dance teach we can send around the world, you can imagine how much we can celebrate our cultural identities. We can be the America of our own dances. Everywhere in world we can be known we base it on the amount of dance culture we have in Nigeria, but that culture is still to be exploited, because even at the national level the National Troupe of Nigeria does not have a dance school and history teaches me that any national dance company that does not have a school dies the day it is established. So we need a school at the national troupe level to ensure continuity of ideas and of thoughts and develop a curriculum, system, mechanics and schemes on how dances can be taught and maybe that way it can have a multiplier effect especially at the local level as then people will begin to know about how to bring out their dances and begin to develop them. If we don’t go through this process of modern education, it would be difficult to teach the dance, and at the same time it must be known that only the traditional dance in Nigeria serves as the only aspect that people earn a living from, from the art councils to the National Troupe and it is the only source of training the modern dancers.
You talked about dance being shrouded in secrecy, as a dance practitioner; do you see that as a challenge?
Well, I’ve encountered that in my practice but maybe because of the way they see me, some of my dancers when they see me they think I am coming to redeem them and so they open up to me. But even if you don’t open up to me all I have to do is look at your dance, I will decode it, so when you tell me something else I would even tell you more about the dance than you know, because I studied from the rhyme to the posture, the gestures and costume of the dance to the sound of your music. I could say if you are trying to invoke nature, or grow your crops, invoke the rain, go to war or seduce, I would be able to decode all that but I have a training, that I seem to see most of those things sometimes three quarters of the time I am correct. It is when I open up to them to tell them what the dance are that they’ll agree that okay we understand. I would even take them to the level of the imagery they have borrowed from for the dance; is it animal imagery, vegetation, or is aquatic, is it aero? I show them the source of that creativity, and I’ll begin to show them element that has been applied to the motifs, and they find out that I actually understand what I am talking about. Is it emotional, is it ego, all those things are sources that dances are derived from because that itself is a human personality, a cultural personality that is a characteristic of a culture. So my training, exposure and experience have always come into play, I don’t know how many other dance professionals who would be able to know these secret knowledge.
A lot of people say that the national troupe turns away from African contemporary dance steps, hopw true is that?
I don’t know what they call African contemporary dance steps, because from the time colonialism released the dances into our culture they became contemporary. As a matter of fact, there is no reason why the “Atilogu” dance in Lagos is not contemporary because it is not performed within its shores where everybody understands its move, I don’t know what is not contemporary about that, any dance that cannot communicate is no dance, because the whole idea of dance is communication at the highest level of symbolism, but the audience should not be lost in that symbolism. If the performer performs and the audience is unable to interact and be part of that communication then that is no dance.
There are dances and steps dance created on the streets, what is the place of these dances in the repertoire of the National troupe?
Sociology will show you that such dances actually emerge in cosmopolitan settings where there are people from more than one culture associating. So those dances are like pidgin English to ease communication, they are part of the pop culture in the cosmopolitan setting, people just make moves, for the purpose of kinetics. They just want you to feel their flexibility, their athleticism, they want to show you that they are rigid, but dance is not about rigidity but about grace and communication but those dances emerged and they don’t impact on the Nigerian culture that way because it performed by a percentage that is marginally negligible.
How would you describe the size, shape and colour of the National Troupe of Nigeria?
The size and shape and colour of the national troupe is basically that the National troupe is Nigerian in every aspect of the word and the mandate is to ensure that we bring the cultural manifestation of our cultures to the highest level be it professionally and internationally and that is what we do, the size and colour of what we do are all embedded in what the Nigerianess in all of us is all about. You look at our artistes you find everybody from every language group in Nigeria. Because we carry out national auditions, as some states don’t send people, we also integrate the country and in terms of our output our dances are national. So we are doing the whole idea of what the compass of Nigeria tells us, which of course is why the constitution says ‘we the people of Nigeria’.
What platforms are you creating for the continuity of ideas on a personal that is?
Well this fear is not out of place. The national troupe already has already created a platform for me, where I have to try to pass my knowledge and experiences of the art to the dance students, that too is still not enough because the school system would have been a better system. If it is possible for me to say let me set up an NGO where I can do this free of charge. About three years ago when I said I would want to run a choreography clinic every month end, I found out that, I didn’t have control of my time to do that because there is so much work to do at the national troupe. I might say let me set up a dance school, where is the fund to do that, where can they be found. In the universities, we are not producing the dancers of my quality, those who could take over the mantle of leadership in that area. Where are they? So that’s why I say that that fear is alright. But I think that lacuna can be filled and I hope I’ll do something about it in the nearest future to see how we can prepare a generation that can take over from us because at the moment that generation is not there. Most people are even afraid of the dance. Most are afraid of coming to a profession where a thank you is not what the economics of this country is all about. Some people do not see how they can sustain a good housekeeping from dancing because they see it as something for not rewarding. People see dancers as those who lay about and never-do-wells; but that is not necessarily true. So this kind of fears do not even bring in people with the right intellectual tools who can carry this mandate. So those e factors that militate against even me passing on the information to others. I mean I was taken from the university and I’m still a university person but within the university system I know what I would have been able to do but the exposure and experience here have put me in a position to know what to do when I go back to the university.
Do you have a forum for re-orientating professionals on the rudiments of dance, especially those in Nollywood?
I think you are trying to let the cat out of the bag, and I think you have opened the bag, so let me let the cat out. One of the things we are going to start this year is what we call dance projects. Within the last quarter of this year, I am going to hold a workshop which is for producers, in-producers, dancers, choreographers, and those who are pretending to be choreographers, journalists, so that even the criticism of dance, they would know the rudiments, principles of choreography itself. So we are going to have a workshop within the fourth quarter of the year when these would be taught, we hope we’ll be able to sustain it because even the one for children is expensive and money is hard to come by and so we will try and see if we can get sponsors to be able to sustain that because we will have to bring resource persons even from abroad, so that we would be able to start another thinking culture. Most of our Nollywood films are not properly choreographed, what do you do when there is no alternative or when the producers are afraid of bringing someone who may tell them what may be too expensive to do because that is very expensive to do. The Dance Project would be organized basically one for the youth and another for the professionals.
With so much activity surrounding you, how do you relax?
I relax by talking with my wife, reading my Bible, watching the television. Before now I use to relax by wrestling (laughs), yes something that will make me not think about dance but I just found out that everything I see is dance; how do we move it forward, I even relax thinking about how dance can be developed even in the school system, how it can developed to be something that children can start from in their early school. I was part of that team that started discussing minority art in Britain when In was doing my post-graduate studies in Britain; why can’t that happen in Nigeria. Those things bother me. So you might be right to say I don’t rest In fact I try to rest but I find it difficult to rest because the onus is on me to chart a path for dance for this nation so that others can follow but I can’t do it alone. Others have the passion but they can’t find a way so I have to find a way so to relax only the bible, my wife and children.
What is your take on standardizing dance practice as a profession?
Well, the answer is simple; the National Troupe is not a regulatory organization. It would be the function of the National Board for Technical Education to come to regulate because dance is a technical thing, but the National Board for Technical Education does not even recognize dance as a subject. The school curriculum does not even recognize dance. What they have for children in primary and secondary schools, I think they call it psychomotor activities; that is very amorphous. So how would you plan to regulate what you have not planned to regulate.
If you say dance is not recognized in the school curriculum, what is the national troupe doing about it?
I think that the kind of personalities who have managed the National troupe have all pushed the issue of dance to a point that ordinarily, anybody that is interested in the educational sector should be able to take a decision about it; we don’t have to do a song and dance about it. Those at the policy making level should know that for the national troupe to exist it means that dance has political, economical, social and diplomatic values at the national levels. We require those who are the think tanks in the educational sector to review what developments have taken place which should be accommodated within the planning for the benefit of our children.
Challenges of dance and art in general
The first challenge is ideological; the substructure has not created the bulwark for the people who want to get into dancing to grow, I just think I was lucky or that Nigeria loves me so much that I have been able to rise to a level of a director as dancer that I did, I don’t know how many people who can get there even at the state level. We have to transform our ideological thinking and think of how to develop every aspect of our human endeavours in other to bring out the best, even from the very least of the areas of our concerns as a nation. In terms of facilitie,s those ones don’t exist because the educational policy has not changed from the time of Ajayi Crowther’s Bible school in the 1860’s, that curriculum has not changed till today. That ideology has other elements in religion, some religion abhor dance, others accept dance, and they don’t see it as an important cultural element, as a capital for development. If the ideological basis is structured then we can talk about infrastructure; it would come naturally. We would be able to challenge people to be politically, culturally, and socially responsible to the enablement in the society. The major challenges are ideological.
Do you think dance as an industry is self-sustaining?
Nollywood was not created by government, it was created by individuals but we are meant to know that Nollywood holds in about 14 billion naira, dance can be created but at the moment the problem is about the kind of capacity behind it, the human capacity. Most people do not even know what dance is all about. They think it’s about wriggling your body by the capacity we have, people just want to be dancers as a way of escaping but that is a very serious business and the whole world can see what is happening in the international communities and what they use their dances for, and how they are able to climb the social ladder to dance and provide social mobility for the citizens but first it must be acknowledged and structured as a generic element in the ideology.
You unveiled a set of literary works last year, any plans of going to the screen?
Well I can’t go to the screens because I don’t have the money, and what I want to now is that, my book that won the ANA award was dedicated to the queen, so I am planning to send 60 copies to the queen to mark her 60th anniversary queen, that’s because I don’t have money to go to the screen so it’s better to give my books to those I dedicated it to and if they want to change the books to screen works, so be it.
Can you talk about your family, how much motivations have you gotten from them?
My immediate family is my major source of inspiration, even my first book titled “I am the woman” was dedicated to my mother and my wife and the women of the world. In fact, my wife has been a major source of inspiration to me, I get a lot of inspiration and support from my wife and children.
Names of wife and children
My wife is Pamela which means sweetness, my daughter, Arikanawasi meaning God is with me, my first son, Ubongawasi which means God’s glory, and my other child is Nsikagawasi that means nothing is impossible with God.
Your kids taking to dance
Well my daughter in SS 2 won her first awards in dance but she says she wants to become a medical doctor and I don’t object to that. My father was a headmaster but he didn’t stop me from dancing. My wife too is also a dancer, playwright and clinical psychologist, so it runs in the family, but I wouldn’t want them to take to my profession, let it be of their own volition.
From your perspective, what’s the future of dance?
The future of dance in Nigeria is great especially now we have a minister, especially now that we have a minister who likes culture to be performed to the fullest. Other ministers have encouraged the dance but then they are just individuals. it is such that if we were to have a sneak preview we would put everything to work to develop a school curriculum that would develop our children from the primary to the secondary, so that when they arrive at the university, they already know their calling and mission, that way, there would be better Arnold Udokas in Nigeria and the future but it requires the political will and a lot of funding to make it come to fruition but it can also be achieved. I can put it to you that Nigeria is capable of exporting more than a hundred thousand dance teachers, if you look at the myriad of culture we have and imagine the quantum of culture that we have, I don’t think you can find such in other continents. It remains an untapped resource waiting to be tapped to draw in both foreign and local currencies, develop our tourism to increase our GDP.
If you were asked to market the national troupe, how would you start?
I would say the National Troupe in Nigeria is the most outstanding, performing dance company in Black Africa and I would say the National Troupe can thrill you even in your dreams and has the best talents in creative arts. It is the only troupe that can show Nigeria to the world.
Tallest building in Europe opens in London
As the tallest building in Europe it dwarfs the others in the capital. Its distinctive style stands at odds with the historical buildings in the city centre. Prominent writers complained about its construction but the city’s inhabitants have generally come to love it.
This description is not of London’s Shard, but of the Eiffel Tower. When it was opened in 1889 it was far more radical for its time than the Shard is today. Nothing like it, in stature or in its revolutionary iron construction, had ever been built before. Yet it quickly became the iconic symbol of Paris.
Admittedly, the title for Europe’s highest tower is open for debate. At 308 metres the Shard is widely quoted as now being the tallest building in Europe. But while the main body of the Eiffel Tower is only 300 metres tall, it stands at 324 metres once you add the base and television antenna.
What is not at issue is that both buildings are relatively small compared with the world’s highest skyscrapers. The tallest of all at present, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is 828 metres high. The Shard – at 310 metres – only makes it to 59th on the global list with most of the giants located in east Asia and the Arabian peninsula.
Against this backdrop the extreme conservatism of the Shard’s critics should be apparent. They complain about its scale, the way it symbolises inequality and – horror of horrors – that it is largely owned by foreigners.
It is true that the Shard is strikingly larger and different in design from many of London’s traditional icons. In their time St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower bridge no doubt also stood out against older buildings. Yet to thrive cities need to be living, breathing institutions rather than fossilised organisms.
Many recent additions to the capital have quickly become a welcome part of the scenery. As Karl Sharro, a London-based Lebanese architect who has been involved in many projects in the Middle East, has written: “The Gherkin, the London Eye, and the Millennium Dome [now named The O2] have not only displayed ambitious architecture and cutting-edge technology but have quickly become symbols of London.” Soon they are to be joined by several more tall buildings including 20 Fenchurch Street (the “Walkie-Talkie”), 122 Leadenhall Street (the “Cheese Grater”), the Bishopsgate Tower (the “Pinnacle”) and 100 Bishopsgate.
As for inequality, it is no doubt true that the Shard will be an exclusive building but that is hardly unique. How many ordinary couples get married in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral? How many grand residences are open to the public? If this logic were followed consistently there would be far fewer striking buildings in London or anywhere else.
To the extent that social divisions can be tackled through construction the answer is surely more not less. Not only opening up existing architecturally impressive buildings to the public but building many more. The larger the number of innovative constructions the more the public will have access to them.
Indeed a group of architects and others have recently created a detailed scale model of a Mile High Tower that would soar to 1,600 metres and could well be a solution to London’s housing shortage. As the capital’s population grows, through natural increase and immigration, it could provide many people with decent housing.
Yet even residential buildings on this scale are not new in principle. As far back as 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the world’s greatest architects, presented his plans for Mile High Illinois. Only with modern techniques and materials could such a hugely ambitious building be easier to achieve than in his time.
The anxiety about the Shard and other ambitious skyscrapers reflects a deep anxiety about progress. Rather than nervously cling on to earlier achievements it would be far better to reach for a bolder future.