Soul Sister Spreads Her Wings

Shani dances further into choreographic focus

By EVAA ASANTEWAA.

If you’ve seen Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins perform with Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Urban Bush Women, David Dorfman Dance, and other fine troupes, where she lights up the stage with her piercing focus and Amazon energy, you’ll understand one reason that her birth name—bestowed by a family friend from East Africa—suits her well.

For starters, Shani means “marvelous.” “Nwando,” Collins added, “means I think of everyone else before I think of myself, and Ikerioha signifies a child born after many troubles,” which refers to her mother’s difficult pregnancies.

In her youth, it was tough for this Greensboro, North Carolina native to carry this unusual name.

“People made fun of it,” she said, but after a visit to the motherland she grew into this identity. Later, some coaxing by UBW’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar helped her to fully embrace it. As a whole, the name implies strength and deep compassion that come from knowledge of suffering. Today, the 26-year-old interpreter of renowned dances creates choreography of her own, devoted to the empowerment of women of color.

On May 19, her company—Shani Nwando Ikerioha Collins’ Eternal Works—will revive two of these pieces for an evening shared with the celebrated Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group. The program, “Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation,” will be presented by 651 Arts at Long Island University’s Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts in downtown Brooklyn.

Wilson plans to show revivals of “The Dew Wet” and “Jumping the Broom,” two dances about relationships. Collins will remount “Eternal” and “…But Some of Us Are Brave.”

“This project for 651 Arts gave us an opportunity to get to know each other and appreciate our similarities,” Collins said. “Reggie’s research in Africa and the Diaspora, and his work with spirituality, like Ron Brown’s work, interests me because we’re both trying to get to our spirits, to a place of healing.”

Collins, who won the American Dance Festival’s Martha Myers Choreography Award, draws movement ideas and stylistic inspiration from many sources—the natural world of ocean, wind, and birds, the deities of Afro-Atlantic religions, traditional, modern, and contemporary dance, club dancing, and the martial arts. Still searching for her unique choreographic voice, she trusts that her dedication to women’s concerns will take her there.

“Goddess Subdued”(2004) addressed hostility and eventual reconciliation among women. This ensemble piece was a highlight of “This Woman’s Work: Black Women Choreographers of the Next Generation,” an August 2005 program shared with EVIDENCE colleagues Camille A. Brown and Bridget Moore, Alvin Ailey Studios’ Citigroup Theater star Hope Boykin, and other emerging Ailey dance makers.

“Eternal,” a 1997 solo that Collins developed into a trio, alludes to slave auctions and to Sarah Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman enslaved in Europe, nicknamed “the Venus Hottentot,” and displayed in the early 19th century as a freak for the voluptuous sexual characteristics of her body. The dance is set to “Images,” in which Nina Simone sings of a woman who “does not know her beauty” because “there are no palm trees on the street, and dishwater gives back no images.”

“… But Some of Us Are Brave”—developed in residencies at Bates Dance Festival and Portland, Oregon’s New Dance Studio—arose from a monthly series of women’s circles initiated by Collins and documented by Phakiso Collins, her younger sister, in a film entitled “Quiet as it’s kept.”

“We call these circles ‘breaking out parties,’” the choreographer said. “We talk about everything and redefine ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

The dance’s lead character smears stuff on her face in an attempt to improve on nature.

“I was thinking about women in West Africa who want to lighten their skin shade, women of color deciding whether their hair should be blond or natural,” Collins said. “It’s about the rite of passage of coming to know oneself and living in that glory.”

She drew her title from “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave,” an influential 1982 anthology of essays that explore issues of race, class, sexism, and sexuality from a black feminist perspective.

“This dance deals with the uncomfortable silence of the black woman in this society,” Collins explained. “I want women to see themselves in this piece and in all I do and know that we’re all going through this together.”

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