This Is Not Black – Alesandra Seutin & Ayanna Witter-Johnson: Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, 12 September 2014

This is not a review

Polka dotty. Alesandra Seutin in This Is Not Black. Photo by Camilla Greenwell

Polka dotty. Alesandra Seutin in This Is Not Black. Photo by Camilla Greenwell

Describing herself as a performer, choreographer and teacher, Harare-born Alesandra Seutin’s life and parentage spans both Africa and Europe (her mother is Zimbabwean, her father Belgian). In This Is Not Black she looks into ‘Afro-European’ (her coining, not mine) issues of identity and culture that her time on the planet has shown her.

To help demonstrate this there was plenty of peculiarly stand-offish audience interaction. She played a version of Guess Who with the audience by assigning herself the names of Beyonce, the Queen, God and herself. Asking questions such as ‘Am I a woman?’, ‘Am I black?’ or ‘Do I take drugs?’ she aimed to question stereotypes and assumptions about how we see others (although once the audience bellowed back at her that they did indeed think God was tall, you did start to wonder how reliable the audience was as arbitrators of reason).

She also made everyone look under their seats and those who discovered a long bit of paper there were invited to come up on the stage. Once there, they clipped their paper onto a band around her waist to make it look like a short skirt and were then promptly waved off. I’m sure it was lovely for them to briefly meet Seutin in person but for the rest of us it just felt like time being killed. This reflected the general tone – the whole piece felt like it was put together in a hurry and its pacing was awry.

The dancing that lay between these bouts of two-way communications took up a lot of the rest of the one-hour show but lacked any real sense of addressing the issues at hand. The one obvious exception (and the best moment of the show for me) came after the paper skirt was completed. Seutin danced some African tribal movement so that the skirt instinctively came across like a grass skirt but then burst into brief segments of Swan Lake, thereby turning the skirt tutu-esque and in the process identified ties and differences between African and European heritages in one simple image.

Unfortunately, although she could ripple her body like no-one’s business, the rest of the choreography revealed little of the tension or harmony prevalent in the rub between different cultures. Nor did it really create anything new and a lot of it was quite bland. It summed up This Is Not Black in a way – it was pleasantly unprovoking, the rhythm without the blues.

The finest element of the show actually lay with the musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Sat to one side and accompanied only by a cello and some pedal loops she played some riveting music from Bach to many of her own jazz-flecked compositions. She also had a canny way of driving percussion from her instrument by rattling her fingers on the cello’s casing, building a rhythm around it and looping it so she could layer stringed melodies on top. She also has a beautifully evocative voice to boot. A solo concert from Witter-Johnson must be quite something to witness.

Seutin is an engaging personality and clearly has an interesting tale to tell but I’m not convinced that this jumble of music, dance, singing and performance is the best way to express it. Still, it must be said that a lot of the audience seemed to love it so perhaps there were just a lot of cultural identifiers I was missing. Whether this proves or disproves her point, I can’t quite work out.

Gerard Davis

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