The News (Lagos)

Nigeria: Dancer of Fortune

Peter Badejo, the United Kingdom-based Nigerian dancer who bagged the Officer of the British Empire (OBE) award last year, is in Nigeria to train dancers for the All African Games festival.

He was invited by Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, who, until a few weeks ago, was the coordinator of the cultural aspect of the All African Games coming up in Abuja, in October. The ace dancer's brief is primarily to choreograph dancers for the event and he tells TheNEWS that Nigeria should expect nothing but the best from him.

Fifty-something year old Peter Badejo, who hails from the Afidi-Potemole royal house of Ijebu Ode, Ogun State, would be drawing from the fountain of the experience that endeared him to the Queen Elizabeth of England. He had made history last year, when he became the first Nigerian to bag the Officer of the British Empire (OBE) award. His exploits in professional dance won him the laurel. Already, he has assembled about 100 dancers, and they are being camped at Akodo, an ocean resort in a serene location outside Lagos. Out of the 100, he would eventually shortlist 70, who would then make the trip to Abuja.

Badejo left Nigeria 17 years ago when, according to him, the environment was no more conducive for his dreams as a performer. He had been a lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He has no cause to regret leaving Nigeria: "It's been a very interesting experience. It cannot be codified in just a few words in the sense that everywhere you live in this world you have your ups and downs, especially when you are pursuing an endeavour in a place where you are a cultural ambassador. You have your own culture; and you are now being influenced by the culture of your hosts. You are making an expression both culturally and creatively." The need to reconcile these factors, he adds, shapes and reshapes the direction of his dance trade in the UK. But being a different atmosphere, there are situations where he begins to question himself: is your artistic expression being understood in England?

Yet, it is not a question that any artist practising outside the shores of his or her fatherland should lose sleep over. That England is not deaf and dumb to his art has best been substantiated by the OBE award.

He is equally excited that merit and neither chauvinism nor nepotism holds sway in England.

Stake holders and the audience at large judge him and other artists by their abilities and talents. This, he says, makes a lot of difference: "The sense of appreciation in England is different from the sense of appreciation in Nigeria - at least to a reasonable extent. For instance, the way art is appreciated there is not by selection of whom you know or who your godfather is. People look at your art, and appreciate it accordingly. I am not saying there is no discrimination in England, but it is limited." The OBE award carries no cash prize. But it opens doors to castles of honours and opportunities. After winning the award, Badejo was lifted to the realm of the most senior citizens of England, not in terms of age, but in terms of the respect accorded him, the gatherings he is invited to, and what he calls the "little privileges here and there." "You get into some of these parties where you meet quite a number of people you don't meet every day. You know how it works: it helps if you need to develop in those lines of business. The world keeps on getting smaller, and the more people you know, the smaller it becomes. An interaction with people of different calibre does help the development of whatever you are doing. In most cases too, when you wear your badge of honour, it helps. Even, without being immodest, the OBE behind your name means that you belong to a certain category of people." While noting that the award is also simultaneously a mark of added responsibility, he concedes that, off the stage, he is a shy person, and, so, he wears the OBE crest sparingly.

Badejo, like several other artistes of his generation including Jimi Solanke and Tunji Oyelana, is a total artiste. He is involved in drama, music and storytelling. In 1990, he founded Badejo Arts, the group that is now at the forefront of contemporary African dance in Britain. The company challenges perceptions of African dance by bridging the gap between traditional technique and contemporary expression. The troupe's concern is to transform African dance into a living aesthetic responsive to the dynamics of everyday life.

Badejo teaches African dance as well. He runs a summer school in England, and organises workshops which take him around the world. He has choreographed and staged over 30 productions in America, Europe, Africa and India. He featured in major dramas such as Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman and Gabriel Gbadamosi's Eshu's Faust.

Last year, he dazzled his audience with Elementa Passions, an extraordinary dance journey into the labyrinthine soul of Sango, the Yoruba fiery god of thunder. Badejo shares the belief that Sango is a metaphor for many fundamental qualities.

"Sango is a spiritual paradox. It is mortal, yet immortal. Historical, yet mythical; masculine, yet feminine. Above all, Sango is an elemental force of passion. Sango is like fire, his colour is red and his dance restless, fiery and wild like a bushfire." Elemental passions is built on these convictions.

Another project which Badejo intends to execute before he returns to England is Bata Bade. It is a codification project of Bata dance for the development of the first African dance technique. The dancer of fortune, whose wife and four children also live abroad, has seen and worked with many impressive dancers abroad. But he gives Nigerian dancers a pat on the back. According to him, talents abound in the trade in Nigeria, but the environment is hostile to their aspirations. There is absence of facilities needed to promote them. Nigerian journalists, he adds, are hardly well equipped to critique dance. Above all, government is not sensitive to the plight of dancers and artistes in general.

"The people who should be developing dance in this country are concerned about using them as tools of tradition and exhibition," Badejo laments.

He hopes to bring the best out of the dancers camped at Akodo, because he is mindful of the magnitude of the ceremonies they are being prepared for, and the fact that Nigerian audience have a taste: "Nigeria is a place where if you are a performer, if you dish rubbish to the audience, they will rubbish back to you immediately. It is not a silent audience. Not an audience that waits for you to get out of the theatre before they tell you what they feel. So, it shows you, we have an enlightened audience."

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