There is a sequence in dance artist Alesandra Seutin’s solo performance Ceci N’est Pas Noire (This Is Not Black) where she peels off her head wrap, hands it into the audience and commands them to smell it. The wrap, a strip of bright African fabric, is traditionally a symbol of strength, beauty and pride, multi-purposed as ornament, protector, baby sling, and as affirmation of determination ‘because when an African woman tightens her wrap around her, she means business’. In Seutin’s show, the wrap leaves her body and then the stage through the fourth wall.
The daughter of a black Zimbabwean mother and white Belgian father, born in Harare, raised in Brussels and now based between London and Antwerp, Seutin describes herself as being ‘Afro-pean’ - European, African, and also whatever it means to be a fluctuating mix of the two. Her solo work is an attempt to translate what all those labels and identities mean for her personally, but also more broadly, through a vocabulary of dance, theatre, spoken word and song. Seutin’s personal becomes political when she attempts to explore what ‘black’ really means.
She came to dance because her mother and brothers were ‘always dancing - in my house it was a natural thing to move.’ Seutin’s style is hybridic: beginning with ballet and jazz, in Belgium she was introduced to hip-hop and in London she was exposed to contemporary dance and traditional African dance. ‘Through exploration, collaboration and dance making, I started developing the vocabulary that suited my body and then I translated that to others. My work now is a fusion of all those elements I have encountered.’ Seutin has a fine arts background, and her work is as much performance art as purely dance. ‘I always move but my focus has shifted from just dancing and training now to the movement - what does it say? When you are a dancer, you are thinking about your body and the aesthetics of that, but I am more about creating work and movement, narrative, or pieces that might affect the world.’
You are based between Antwerp and London as artistic director of Vocal Dance Company. Are both cities equally open to creativity?
Yes, but Antwerp is still quite obscure to me. It feels much more of an underground city where you need to know people to know that something is happening. In the UK, everything is so well marketed, you see it on a flyer or a magazine, but in Antwerp the cool things are more word of mouth. It is new for me, quite strange, discovering it bit by bit. Having a base in London is important because in Belgium, I feel that people didn't take me really seriously when I said I wanted to work within dance, to perform, because it is seen more as a hobby or something that is for others, not necessarily for those here and certainly not as a professional career. Most artists have a secondary job, so I needed to be somewhere where I would be pushed.
Your work seems to be as much performance art as dance. What role does the audience play for you?
I was always conscious of my audience but it didn't start like that. It has been more about introducing a vocabulary to an audience and being able to speak that vocabulary internationally or universally, whether the audience is European or African or Asian. I started developing the idea of really connecting closely with people through the senses, touching the connection because it is something we lack - this idea of real connection. That’s why in my performance I like to engage with different ideas around the senses - the only one I haven't developed is taste. But I feel, and smell, and there is sound, and all of that brings memory and through that there is a way of connecting with audiences. A smell might take you somewhere and transform your body and your experience and I am really interested in that now.
When I train with female dancers I want to empower them with confidence about their bodies, their power and their strength.
When you take off your head wrap and you pass it around, it seems subversive and upfront. What were you wanting as a response from that?
When I give the wrap, that moment is about misconception and the idea of judgement and how we see people. People talk about different types of people and how they smell different, so I give you my smell - here you go, smell me - and it is in your face rather than letting you think about it. I am giving it to you, there you go.
You are breaking through the fourth wall in your performances a lot. How do audiences react?
They find it exciting - they are always on the edge of their seat, they can’t relax. Usually in the theatre you are calm, safe, and you just watch but here, you never know when I will come back to you and connect with you. I want the audience to be engaged throughout. When I was working on This Is Not Black, I looked at a lot of them, and I thought about what I liked and didn't like and I wanted to try to present the things that I would like to experience.
I think of ballet dancers, bleeding feet, bodies shrinking - in your work you are turning those ideas around and right back out into the audience.
Yes, my body now is of a normal woman - powerful, but it is important that the audience can relate to my body, and they can see their own body in a different way. I think it is beautiful, the dream body of a ballerina, but I am more about humanity and a real connection.
Watching you dance is joyful - you have strong empowered movements, and it feels like a kind of feminist act to be moving like that.
When I was dancing with different companies, the women have the role that is different to a man, when standing on the stage they have a female role and the men have the power, and I thought, no. People said when I dance next to a guy, because I am tall, there was some balanced power. When I train with female dancers I want to empower them with confidence about their bodies, their power and their strength. I want to work with dancers who look different, who have different bodies, because each bring their different personalities and represent something unique.
How did This Is Not Black come about?
My work usually starts from the personal at first. I started off with different objects that meant something to me: one was bottle of perfume, there was a pair of golden sneakers, a wrap; objects I felt content and close with. Then it developed into ideas about my own identity and heritage, and bigger things started coming. I thought how should it speak more universally, this story, rather than just for me. Sometimes my work begins for me by reading a book, or feeling annoyed with certain global social or political issues, and it becomes about how I can translate that into dance and theatre. As an artist, you have to be open to so many things. You can’t just see dance work - you have to challenge yourself and feed yourself with different mediums because it enriches the work.
You are big on collaboration. What do you get from that process?
I get different ideas, someone else’s vision of life, art, or work. Collaboration is someone bringing their own ideas to my work and seeing how it might fit together. You create richer work. I need the eye of others, music, or ideas from reading, sounds, and discussions with other people to feed me. We can create better things if we collaborate as long as the ego isn't too big. You have to shed your own ego to meet someone halfway.