Notes From a Suitcase

By Kim Epifano

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

MAY 2009 – In A Dance Studio In America
During a recent rehearsal I rediscovered a recording of my young Ethiopian students singing. It transported me back to the village in Africa, where everyone sang, danced and laughed with abandon. They were in the studio with me and would be with me always as our moments together were precious.

My excursion in Ethiopia was life-changing. So often my thoughts and experiences stay closed within my notebooks and my photos stay on my computer. Reading a notebook can be like unpacking a suitcase, you find treasures that aren’t necessarily related to each other, but together make up one full journey. This transference of art and community is essential to me.

I landed in Addis Ababa Ethiopia a place that looks a lot like Mill Valley except the electricity goes out for weeks at a time and goats are everywhere. I was there to co-direct a theater/dance/music piece for teens from the United States and Ethiopia. The group went to a small village called Wondo Genet, which is five hours South West from Addis Ababa, with Sally Davis and our Mudd Butt Mystery Theater Troupe International. This marked our 15th international trip. Dropping into a village in Africa was a gift of intensity and ecstasy. For two weeks, we worked with 18 Ethiopian students and 16 American students in a very dark classroom with a stone floor. The windows were just iron bars and shutters, no glass. Each day, more and more people would peek through the windows.

When we rolled into Wondo Genet, we were on a dirt road full of rubble and mud. There were many contradictions and weird juxtapositions in this village. It looked so desolate, but when we went back off the main dirt road there were mud houses everywhere, some had beautiful patterns on them. The people like to chew chat, which creates a speedy state. Everything was essential and nothing went to waste. We had three translators—one of whom was a woman who had lived in the United States for a short amount of time. One was a Rastafarian who wore a new Obama t-shirt everyday. And then there was our word smith who helped translate the play we worked on, keeping true to the poetic words in Amharic and bringing an environmental issue to the old Folktale we used as a script.

The pace of working with a script in two languages while directing and teaching was a whole other adventure. Slowing down was crucial. I found myself breaking up my sentences so they could be more easily translated, although some of our students spoke English. The group we worked with were between ages 14 and 19, but most of them were closer to 18. It was a group of 13 young men and 5 girls.

Tamirac, one of our male students, took us for a two-hour hike to a waterfall above a hot springs. It saddened me to see the poorest families living illegally in the jungle, their only income from the profit they make on trees that they cut down to sell. Deforestation is one of their biggest problems right now. Where there were still trees, we saw baboons.

On our way down the mountain, two little girls ran past with books in their arms. They were late to school a mile and a half away. One of them picked up some obsidian and gave it to me because she saw I was collecting it. When I got to rehearsal this moment of exchange with the girl stayed with me. She saw what I did and repeated it, so I translated that into a mirroring dance exercise. The students loved it. All of a sudden the whole room was full of duets. What do you need words for? Getting to know each other can transcend language. Many times when I am on the road internationally, mime becomes a part of my daily language. I was so pleased when tables turned and they taught us one of their dances. We learned the Pigeon Dance, also known as the Welcome Dance. It’s a great partner dance: you bob to the side of a partner’s head two times, dance around each other, and then the knees come up. It’s all done in couples and makes me think of our night off, when we went out without the students.

April 10
We went to a bar in the town of Hawasa; there was a lot of hard alcohol and an electric band. Each song would have a new singer come up and sing a modern version of an ancient form, all in Amharic, the ancient language spoken there. The fashion was incredible, a time warp: the women wore fitted bellbottoms of a spandex-like material and tie-dyed halter-tops, with braided hair and huge earrings. The men hung out with men, and women hung out with women, everyone was very affectionate. I danced myself into a sweat with a bunch beautiful Ethiopian city women. Typically in the village the women are married at 14. Most of them give birth before their bodies are developed enough to handle the birth. It made me question, what did these women do in the city? I looked over at the dance floor and laughed to see my co-worker Sally actually doing the Pigeon Dance with a man from the bar, the same dance we had learned from our students.

On a different occasion we saw couples dancing with their faces touching chin to chin. They would roll from that point along the edge of their faces all the way around to other side. Their faces were touching the entire time; the intimacy of this was stunning. In other parts of the dance, the men did a high kicking leg movement with knees way up and their pelvis jutting out. They would ripple through their spines and backs really fast.

My work around the globe allows me to learn dances and songs from so many cultures. I hadn’t seen much traditional Ethiopian dancing before. There was a lot of fast shifting up and down of the shoulders. The women also would make a figure eight pattern with their heads, starting slow and building up speed until it looked impossible, as if their heads would fall off. Then they would slow down and come out of it, a short movement trance. I had a big moment, thinking about the figure eights of the Alexander technique when I watched this dance. The shoulder dancing was hard to learn, but everybody tried to teach me the correct way to move—even the cook gave me a lesson!

One night we sat around a fire with guitars and one of the instructors started to play Bob Marley songs. Everyone who was around started to appear singing “Don’t You Worry–‘bout A Thing” we all knew the song. It was beautiful. Ethiopia, fire, stars, voices and dancing, I had to pinch myself.

APRIL 11 – The Rastafarian Museum and School
We visited Shashamane, a town that Haile Selassie had made an official Rastafarian town. There was a sign that said all women are required to have their heads covered and wear dresses. If they were menstruating they were not allowed to go inside at all.

While in the museum, I looked at old photos of Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, with American kids in Rasta hats and Obama t-shirts. My mind was flooded with cultures colliding. An ancient Rastafarian man gave us a tour. He tapped at the pictures with his cane as he spoke. He would punctuate his delivery with very long pauses, as if he had forgotten what he was going to say next. When we came to an exhibit about marijuana, he informed us all that cannabis is illegal in Ethiopia.

We went to see the school run by the Rastafarians, which was effective and well run, unlike some other schools we’d been to. Here it was clear that soccer is very important. Our students and their students bonded—again without words—playing soccer. When I travel I like to see what the P.E. curriculum is and how calisthenics is connected through different cultures. Many times the exercises are the same.

APRIL 13 – So Much Energy In Such A Short Time
The rehearsals and performances were trying and tiring, but full of questions and energy. Some of the songs that the group sang on the buses were intensely loud, rhythmic call-and-response chants with hand clapping. We all started singing “Pa Da Na Na Way,” which I know from Capoeira, an afro-Brazilian martial art. We all sang it. I asked them how they knew that song and they said they knew it from a movie they had seen.

We sang, danced and worked incredibly hard, it was a lot to put this show together. We used an Ethiopian folk tale, mixing traditional Ethiopian movement and song, with modern American style. We added concepts, like tourism, and environmental issues. To communicate the message to everybody in the audience and on stage, the piece was done in two languages, Amharic and English. We doubled almost every single character, props and masks, and a life-sized papier mâché horse. Watching that horse dance down the muddy road on the way to the performance was a show in itself.

At times it was hard to keep morale up because the obstacles we faced could become overwhelming. We would be told one thing and then another would happen. When we performed in a church we had to cut many sections out. One boy who was an orphan and lived at the church compound told me several times, “God is the director!” During rehearsals, pounding on our metal roof, the rain could get so loud, that we had to wait until it ended, before we could hear to continue. Even though there were obstacles and delays we always found our way.

APRIL 19 – Time to go
We left on Easter morning, when most Christians slaughter a goat for their Easter feast. This is their celebration in breaking a fast from eating meat the two weeks before Easter Sunday.

As we left Wondo Genet everyone was crying. Tamirac wanted so badly to leave his village and go with us. He even appeared in the next town and hugged us all again. It was hard to say goodbye. We drove past the sugar cane fields on a dirt road and I remembered how loud the frogs were and the sound of the hyenas crying like babies in the night. Finally we came to the paved road. We were all exhausted as we passed the Rift Valley in the distance. We were not far from the roots of human origin itself, the ancient bones of Lucy, and now Ardi, were discovered nearby.

My mind rushed from the lush jungle and the vast landscape of tree silhouettes, to the brown desert sands with camels and donkey carts. When we finally arrived back at Addis Ababa, my body was buzzing with the whole experience of our 18 days. Through our performance, we merged an old Ethiopian folk tale and brought in a modern, Western artistic slant. My experiences here brought two different cultures into one for a short time. Connecting art through cultures is so valuable! The young artists we brought will never be the same and the same goes for me.

MAY 2009 – Back In The Studio
When I arrived home and was back in the dance studio I felt changed, educated and influenced artistically. I remembered one of the American girls telling us that on her first night with her Ethiopian family, a young woman next door to her was giving birth. She heard the sounds throughout the night. What a life changing event for all, the new mother probably had no choice about the birth and the sounds this American girl would never forget.

All of these experiences began to flood into my work. Themes of tribe, justice, hunger, health, woman, ethics and culture emerged. I saw the world beyond myself—the joy, beauty, suffering and injustices—and it has challenged me, as a human, and as an artist.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kim Epifano has over a 35-year history as a choreographer, director, performer, vocalist, educator, producer and curator. Kim illuminates the ordinary and the extraordinary on the stage and in the street, using art as a vehicle to inspire social change. She founded Epiphany Dance Theater in 1997 and serves as its Artistic/Executive Director.