Choreographer uses calypso to explore her Caribbean identity


St. Croix dancer and choreographer Cynthia Oliver, now an associate professor in the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is back in New York after nine years for the production of her Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso, an evening-length work for six women that explores calypso music and Caribbean identity. In an interview with Timeout she discusses the role of calypso in her life. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the complete interview below.

What is the role of calypso in your personal life?
It’s a connection to home. I was born in the Bronx but I grew up in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I was around seven or eight when my family moved back. My father is from there. I spent eight or nine years in St. Croix—it’s where I became an artist. I had two primary teachers who swayed me; one was a German woman, Atti van den Berg, who had danced with Kurt Jooss—so I had this whole German Expressionist, balletic influence on the one side because she took me under her wing. On the other, I had Afro-Caribbean material, because she brought a colleague from Trinidad, Montgomery Thompson. At the same time, calypso was always around me. It was in our carnivals, it was the music played in our house, it was always laughter and song and people making social commentary, and it was my grandfather having a drink of rum on the weekend and dancing to it.

You’ve been working on this piece for several years. How did it begin?
I was doing research for my dissertation in 1999, and a woman in St. Thomas told me about the taboo things for beauty-pageant queens. At the time, they weren’t allowed to take part in certain kinds of events, and one of these was a boat ride. On these boat rides, a calypso band goes out on a boat filled with people who dance all night. I started thinking about the role of calypso and why it is taboo and about its role in my own life.

Were you a fan of calypso music growing up?
My preferred music, personally, was reggae, as a young Caribbean girl, but I always knew calypso was the soundtrack of my life. I always knew that I had to know certain things about calypso. I started noticing, in more recent years when I would hear it in places other than the Caribbean, that it was the signifier of Caribbean identity. That it was one of the ways we recognized each other. We communed with one another, and I decided I wanted to start working on a creative dance-theater piece around some of those issues because it’s a historical form; there’s a lot of rich story and conflict and good material for performance work, and so I did some research in London and Toronto. In having lived in New York for 18 years, I had a good body of evidence from the Caribbean diaspora. I have a group of women who are from the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Liverpool and Toronto—a variety of places where Caribbean people have landed. We started working on creating a piece that is not always directly related to the music, but some of the text and the movement is inspired by conversations around calypso music.

. . .

What are some of the issues of calypso?
Because it’s a mode of social commentary, it is sometimes controversial. The way of dancing to it is hip initiated and, historically, black people moving their hips has always been categorized as lewd and lascivious. It’s not always about sexuality, but it is about a virtuosity of the body and how women are interpreted when they do that kind of performance. It’s the kind of thing that people want to prevent young women, or even children, from performing because it’s seen as inappropriate. That’s the controversial nature of it and we address some of that in the piece. It is a piece for all women, even though I didn’t intend it to be.

. . .

What does the title mean?
Rigidigidim De Bamba De: Ruptured Calypso. Please repeat after me. I’m kidding. It’s a rhythmic call to party that I’ve heard, off and on, since I was quite young. I was at home at Christmastime and I had the radio on and one of the DJs called it out, and I was like, Oh! That’s it.

. . .

Why are words so important?
I’m a storyteller. It doesn’t have to be linear and I’m almost more interested in nonlinear story, but I’m also interested in what exceeds physical movement and in something that complements the physical movement. I want to connect with people on multiple levels. So you see the movement, you hear the words, you hear the sound, you see the visual—it’s a way of getting to you from a number of fronts. I’ve always been interested in the way language can dance.

Cynthia Oliver/COCo Dance Theatre is at Danspace Project Thu 15–Sat 17.

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