PuSh Play Episode 1: “Ramanenjana” Transcript

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:02] Hello and welcome. I’m Gabrielle Martin, director of Programing with the PuSh Festival. Today’s episode highlights the role of dance as public manifestation. I’m speaking with Simona Deaconescu and Gaby Saranouffi, the co-choreographers of Ramanenjana which is being presented at the PuSh Festival January 19th to 21st, 2024. Ramanenjana is a docufiction performance about a dance that made history. It examines dance’s societal role and how colonialism may have spread misconceptions about an extraordinary movement. Simona is a Romanian choreographer and filmmaker, working across genres and formats, shifting between fiction and objective reality. Her work investigates liminal corporalities by meticulously looking at social constructs, sometimes with irony and dark humour. Gaby Saranouffi is a Malagasy choreographer and art activist currently residing in South Africa. She is one of the most influential female artists pioneering contemporary dance in Madagascar. She draws inspiration from Madagascar’s tumultuous history to cultivate a distinct choreographic aesthetic. I’m excited for you to hear our discussion that highlights their collaboration. Part of this interview was rerecorded at a later date due to a power outage and poor connection Gaby was experiencing during the initial interview. Here’s my conversation with Simona and Gaby.

Gabrielle [00:01:27] I am in conversation with Gaby and Simona from the unceded ancestral and traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, colonially known as Vancouver. Thank you for joining me, Simona and Gaby.

Simona [00:01:44] Thank you for having us.
Gabrielle [00:01:46] And Gaby and Simona, will you share where you are speaking to us from today?

Simona [00:01:51] Sure. I’m Simona Deaconescu. I’m a Romanian choreographer and filmmaker, and I am currently speaking from Bucharest.

Gaby [00:02:05] Well, I am Gaby Saranouffi, I am a dancer/choreographer from Madagascar, co-choreographer with Simona Deaconescu with Ramanenjana. And yes, I am calling from South Africa.

Gabrielle [00:02:20] I’d love it if you could tell us about the inception of this project and how did this historical event of a collective dancing fever in Madagascar emerge as the subject for this piece? And how did you come into collaboration with each other?

Simona [00:02:35] Maybe, strange enough, it’s me, Simona, that started this, this project. I started to study mass dances in late 2019, but got into this research deeply in starting in 2020. I first did a project about another mass dance that happened in Europe in Strasbourg in 1518, and yeah, it was called Chroeomania. So this is where I first got into contact with this concept, right? A medieval concept called choreomania, or like better known today now is also like a bit of a I know it’s in vogue, it’s in fashion to talk about it. It’s also called a dance epidemic. So I started to study this event that happened mainly in medieval Europe or like late medieval Europe in what we now know, as I don’t know, Germany, France, Belgium, around the river Reine; so in that period and in that in those places. So studying this event and trying to understand more about them and also to understand how people got to call this mass dances, then epidemics or like choreomania sort of crazed dances I, I went deeper in my research and I found some notes, let’s say some connections with other events that were kind of similar, but not similar, but kind of similar and happened in the 19th century in Africa or like in Brazil. And one of them caught my interest and it was Ramanenjana. So then I decided that maybe I wanted to do like a mini series. This is not something very I know accustomed or normal for then like to create shows that that in a mini series like and feel more like in. But but I had this idea to create like a mini series and also to try to involve other people in my, in my research. Um, yeah. And in long story short, in order to be able to research this to get a bit of funding, to find collaborators, I applied to a program that was called and you still called forecast. It was, it’s a program that kind of supports artists worldwide but is based in Berlin and this is a mentorship program. So I got selected with this project by Mathilde Monnier, and from there Mathilde Monnier connected me with Gaby. So this is how we started to work together. I wanted to partner with whom to work, I wanted to bring like my research about the mass audiences and dance epidemics. But I also wanted to get in touch with someone that knows the history of Malagasy dance, that is local that have worked in this field before and wanted to co-create this with me. So this is how me and Gaby, me and Gaby got together online.

Gabrielle [00:06:16] I’m so fascinated by the subject of this work or the initial concept of this dancing epidemic or choreo, choreo

Simona [00:06:27] Mania

Gabrielle [00:06:27] Mania. Yeah, I am curious to know, I’ll just ask one more question about this. What were some of the similarities and differences between the choreomanias of medieval Europe and of, say, Madagascar?

Simona [00:06:47] First of all, I must I must admit that I do not consider them to be choreomanias. So I do not agree with the people that have said that these are dance epidemics or they are connected in any way with disease or mass psychosis or something like this. For me it was more interested to see how dance was immersed in the social fabric and in the social life and to see if there are in history some examples in which dance appears, I don’t know in, in a method in which it can change the society. So this was my my interest and I was looking for these things. I never really looked for the – although this is what you find when you look for it, the crazy dancing. So I was not looking for the crazy dancing. I was more looking for the historical context in which they happened for the duration of of the event, for how people collaborated between between them, then why this mass dance event happened. So from this perspective, I think the similarities lay in its I don’t know, I will say it’s contagious that same phenomenon. Right. Because it starts with maybe a group, a smaller group of people, but then it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. And then another similarity is the duration, meaning that people can dance for a long period of time. Now, this is, of course, debatable, you know, because also these historical documents have been written in certain contexts by certain people. So we cannot now, we cannot, I don’t know, say that it’s 100% truth, the truth what we now read. So it might be also some fictionalized version might, might, might also appear, but they are durational. So they happen, they can last days, they can last weeks. So it is this kind of durational event and then they tend to appear in periods of crisis. So when there is some type of crisis, either I don’t know it’s a political crises or it comes on a medical crisis, you know, of an actual disease. You know, it happens in a period in which like an actual epidemic or like an actual disease or like they have this mixed, I don’t know, characteristics of being some kind of political in a way a bit political, but also ritualistic and also in Europe.

So in Europe also, they had this ritualistic character, of course, in a completely different way with the completely different, I don’t know, form let’s say, and aesthetic, but they did have the ritualistic approach more like to towards the pagan, right. It was not towards the Christianity, but the bit towards the, the former pagan Gods that were in Europe. So yeah. And and I think the biggest and biggest difference I found and that’s also why I do not believe they are related in any way but they have been forcefully related by people that wanted to put them together in a way, you know, they say like “oh this is like when people are dancing on the streets with thousands, there must be some crazy thing happening there or a disease.” But one big difference is the fact that Ramanenjana had a really clear political context in which it happened. So it like the connections with the with what actually happened and how this event started out very clearly described in documents. While in Europe, they are kind of I don’t know, they are, let’s say, the talk of mystery. So some things are true. Some things you must imagine. There is, there is not, that you cannot prove this thing or this other thing. But in Madagascar also, it was more recent. It was in 1863. So it’s it’s in the 19th century. It’s closer to our times. But it had this very clear political and social context.

Gabrielle [00:11:28] I definitely want to come back to that. I’m really curious about how that is addressed through the work. But first, I want to get more of a sense of your working relationship in your collaboration, because as I understand, this is the first time you’ve collaborated, and I’m curious, what are some of the differences and similarities between your choreographic practices?

Gaby [00:11:49] Well, yeah, it was a very interesting way of collaborating between the two choreographers that is quite, have a different way of creating. For instance myself, I come from a background of the African/Island artistic creative landscape whereby my work is mainly focused in the things that are happening mostly in Madagascar, but also happening in the world. And my work is I like to focus my work with the women’s societal problems, issues as well. And then with Ramanenjana and Simona, Simona is also coming with a background of European, if I may say, Simona you can correct me, you’ll correct me later or you’ll add something. But what that I think makes us to meet is that because of our both works are conceptual, you know, as much as I have roots as an African or people who come from the island. But my work is, is conceptual. So I think also that’s the reason why when Simona was creating the piece Ramanenjana and then looking for having collaborations with Malagasy choreographers, and she was introduced to many brilliant choreographers from Madagascar. And then she chooses me. She approaches me because I think because of that conceptual; also, you know, when you have a choreographer want to collaborate with someone, you feel like ‘yes ah the work of this person is much more near by myself than than the others. So that’s how we we, we met. But, but along the way and what I found interesting is that, you know, the culture shock also during the research that we make you know I am from Madagascar, she’s from, from Romania, we both have a different way of working and creating. And then… how can I say that? It’s like, it’s like the air and the, and the light of the candle, for instance, if the air is blowing too much the candle can die, you know, unless if the candle, the air of the candle is blown just enough then, then the lights continue lighting. So me personally, I was really enjoying the process of our creation. But then mostly I am really, really happy with the really happy and oh yeah amazed that we’ve already journeyed together with Ramanenjana, in exchange with the team and Simona.

Gabrielle [00:15:06] Thanks for giving us that extra bit of kind of insight about your perspectives and a little bit about the process. And I’m curious to hear more about this process and how the work evolved from the initial concept when Simona first met you to what it has become as a finished work. And yeah, and maybe you can talk about the process involved in that. So both how the idea of the piece evolved through the process and what that process looked like in terms of, you know, the time spent together in Madagascar or in Romania or…

Gaby [00:15:48] Yeah. First of all, we started with documenting information from the internet, from the reading, books exchange, also within myself and Simona through the Internet, because Simona and I, we never met actually! I met with – that’s another eipsode, I’ll tell about that but I met the team recently now inside Africa but without Simona I don’t know why I thought destiny… but yes but in any event but we are always in touch, right, thanks to the internet I can see her through the technology. So yes and also for research about the documentation. And then I think the most important that I found that is very profound and give the piece a bit of shape is there is the residency in Madagascar, in February, we met with Olombelo Ricky, that is the composer of the music of Ramanenjana. He’s someone that helps us a lot in terms of information. He has, he has a lot a lots of information about Ramanenjana. Also Simona was having a meeting on documentation. But what was interesting is that the weighing of the information that we got, you know, from the the Internet point of view documentary research in Europe and then the one oral in Madagascar of which I say that in Madagascar, we have an oral tradition that is transmitted from generation to generation. There is no written stuff, you know, if you look for written stuff at that time, even now, there are people writing, but it’s not much. But at that time it’s very rare to find something written on such a, such an event that happened. So what we have is only information that’s written from the people from outside of the country, which is like, in the piece is the missionaries and the people who were sent from the outside countries, the British and French and Belgians etc. they came and then they write their own point of view about this Ramanenjana. And, and then and then it’s not probably the truth. So, so that’s why it was important for us to have the, the residency in Madagascar to meet the real people, the wise people, of which we got a bit of confusion but as surety at the same time, because, you know, we as we have a lot of, a lot of information about the Ramanenjana. For instance, one of the wise men says that the Ramanenjana is a, is a message that is, that is coming from the queen, Queen Mother, from, there is a mountain in Madagascar called Ambondrombe, whereby all the people that is passed away, their spirit lives in that mountain. So the spirit of the, the spirit of Ranavalona, Ranavalona 1 wanted to do, wanted to send a message to her son Radama. So then through that message, she enters in spiritual context within the people that is alive and then, and then the people who have that Ramanenjana they dance, you know, and they dance from their minds no stopping. And within months and months and months and travel from Ambondrombe, which is very far until Antananarivo. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s very very far so they travel for mmonth to month. Once the message arrived to Antananarivo the Ramanenjana just stops, funny enough. But anyway So. So these are the information that we got and Also some information we got from other wise people says that Ramanenjana is a sickness that makes people sick. They have a stiff, stiff convulsions and have red eyes, you know. So yes, in terms of, in terms of the choice of the quality of the movement how we, we want to define this Ramanenjana that we never see. And it was quite challenging, you know, sometimes Simona come to me like “Oh Gabrielle I don’t know, we don’t know how, what kind of… what is this? This working is not working. This is not…” So sometimes we, we tend to, not to say ‘hey, everything does not work,’ you know? But with time, we managed to define the quality of the movement, of which, in the piece we choose to be minimalistic. We don’t want to dance like ‘gah-doom, gah-doom, gah-doom’ like now maybe people think that is from Africa. So now we’re gonna do ‘African Dance,’ we’ve made grants and blah blah, blah. Anyway, the prototype that I’m talking about this always, people have a preconceived idea when they heard about oh, ‘exotic, I learned African’ etc.. But anyway, anyway, it’s okay. But yes. So then that drove us to the quality of the movement. The minimalistic and the stiffness and the togetherness having these oxygen of being together and being repetitive. So when you watch this show, you’ll see kind of like, like robotic movements. Yes, of course, they have their own, own quality through text of which Simona is going to talk about that later, maybe can elaborate. But also they seek some parts of the, of the piece. It was interesting in that it was also linked to what we, we heard about the information about Ramanenjana which is not really sure what exactly is this Ramanenjana, so the process was very, very, very interesting of which then when I saw the piece finally not on video but I saw at the JOMBA! Festival in South Africa here went ‘this one? Yes this one.’ I was so happy, you know, to see the artists live and touch them and and talk and all that, you know finally. It’s, it’s really one of the piece that have a highlight.

Gabrielle [00:23:20] Thank you so much. It’s so great to get a sense of what a rich process it has been and all the different historical information, but also, you know, historical speculation as well as the oral histories, the yeah, the written documentation, the oral histories, the all the different, you know, folklore around it and how that all influenced your… The final work. Did you have anything you wanted to add? Simona

Simona [00:23:52] Yeah. I mean, yeah, regarding this aesthetical aspect. I think for me it was very, very important not to do like a reenactment of the Ramanenjana. I didn’t do this also with the 1518 epidemic also, and next year I’m going to build another episode on another mass dance event. So for me, it’s important not to do this process of reinterpretion, reinterpretation of the event. Why? Because, first of all, we don’t know. So the documentation is very shady, so we don’t know if those descriptions are actually what people actually did. So yeah, for me, like this is like an ethical question of not wanting to, I don’t know, do like a re-, you know, like this kind of recontextualization or remix or anything that is connected with, with this idea of rethinking what, what happened. But mostly the piece and this series talks about the context in which dance appears, how other people look at dance or how we judge dance in the public sphere there when there is no stage, when there is no convention, when there is no understanding of what will happen. So what happens when dance gets out leash, you know, and takes the public sphere? So this is one one of the things. Of course, the problematic thing was, especially in in Madagascar for me, even though I do not consider myself like completely a European, you know, like living in Romania, this border between Orient and Occident is like… But even with this, even with this background, I didn’t feel very comfortable of, you know, like and I also know that the because we had this discussion, she doesn’t really she appreciates very much tradition in everything but she does contemporary dance and she likes to explore this aesthetic of contemporary dance. So yeah, this, this is one aspect that I also wanted to clarify for us, it was really important from the beginning not to to do reinterpretation or reenactment of that specific, of that specific dance. And even it’s more interesting for the audience, you know, because we talk so much about this dance and we’d say so many clues. And then there is this, you know, mystery of how would this dance actually look like? And I think it makes it a bit more open to everyone. And although it speaks about this specific event in history that apparently repeated several times, I think it also talks about us, all of us, that we can, you know, like we can take charge of the public sphere, we can manifest our bodies. We can use, you know, the I know the legacy that we have from from from our communities in order to play an active role in in society. So for me, even if we don’t know exactly what what happened and let’s say we received the wrong seven answers and we put all these seven answers in the piece. So everything what we, what came out of the research is now presented in the piece. For us, this is the interesting part, how this I don’t know, marginal, specific kind of unknown event was able to create such an important, you know, manifestation and make some changes. And I know now hundreds of years after this, like create this possibility for us to have this, discussion. So this is very rare in history for events like this to to exist.

Gabrielle [00:28:10] And I want to understand a bit more when you talk about what it reflects about society and the role of dance through the text that you developed. So, you know, you’ve spoken to how a lot of this research and the different perspectives have made their way into the work. How were the characters who have voice in the text, how were those characters developed and what ideas or questions are present in the subtext? So I guess I’m curious about you know, there’s the text and then, and then there’s this greater critique I hear you talking about, about, you know, how we manifest our bodies in the public space and play an active role in society and how dance can be part of that.

Simona [00:28:48] So in this piece, although there’s a lot of text, it’s all about the subtext. So because the the language that we have created kind of says something through the mouth and through the words, but say something else to the movement and the real message and the real text, let’s say, the real idea, you get it if you pay attention to both. So it’s almost like developing two languages in the same time. It’s like a code because all these events, they were code. And you have to understand the code. So practically what we did with this language is that we try to convey a message by using the words that people actually used. So we’re not inventing other words, but actually using the archive material per se, okay with little modifications, you know, because of the language so that people can understand it better. But 80% of the text that we are using, it’s archive text, it’s not invented. And but by using this language to fictionalize it in a way in which people can understand the subtext. Another thing that we did is to have this recipe that all that happens on the screen, because a lot of the show is interview with Malagasy people. What happens on the screen represents contemporary Malagasy life and the perspective of Malagasy people on this event that, and why this is important, why it’s still present in, in the minds, let’s say in the collective minds of Malagasy people. So whatever happens on the screen, all that happens on the screen, are interviews that we made with people, different scientists, different wise people, as Gaby, Gaby said, shamans, anthropology, professors of anthropology from Madagascar. And what happens on the stage is actually a critique of and represents the text that we took from the archives and different perspectives or the perspective of the, let’s say, English doctors that were the first one that said that this is a disease. So when Joe Davidson, he was there, so he was the one putting this event on the map of the diseases because he heard certain things and he did this link, you know. So and then we have, I don’t know, the French religious voices that come from priests that said, oh, no, this is like, you know, like a possession. This is something, you know, demonic or things like this. Then we have even Malagasy perception. So like we have Dr. Andrianjafy that wrote a thesis about this. He was a Malagasy, but he was very influenced by the French medicine school. He studied in Montpellier, for example. So we try to put all these perspectives together. Of course, it has a funny effect. So most of the parts are funny, but it is done on purpose, you know, because yeah, I mean, it’s hilarious what they say about this event. It’s hilarious how they perceive this this event. But I’m convinced that if a similar event would happen today, I think whatever would happen in the world, people will still have this type, you know, of language and of talking about untamed dance. I don’t think this happened only in the medieval times in Europe or like 19th century in Africa. I don’t think so. I think if today, for example, in Romania, I don’t know about Canada, but in Romania, if like a group of 300 people start dancing on the street, no matter if they have or don’t have a message, if this event just appears like this and it continues for days, and if you feel that this then doesn’t resemble something with the dance that you know, I know something that is warm, that is aesthetic, that is beautiful, that enchants you; in a way, people will still say ‘what’s wrong with this people? They are crazy, they are sick, they are possessed, they are drugged, they are all these kind of things.’ So that’s why I think Ramanenjana it’s a good example for how we look at movement and free movement today, because I’m convinced that if this type of event would happen today. We will still have these characters that we put on stage. They will still exist, you know, the voice of religion, the voice of medicine, the voice of I don’t know, super science, or like so. So yeah. And what’s, and one thing that I also discussed with Gaby is the fact that what is missing is the voice of the dancers. In none of these events, the voice of the dancers is documented, none. You don’t, these people that documented this event never asked a dancer, you know like ‘why are you dancing’ or like what, you know, what is, why are they doing this? You know? And that’s also a thing that we tend to do today, you know, to say what the other person is thinking or believing or why this other person is acting like that without… I don’t know making a simple question, you know, to that person, like, why are you doing this? Yeah.

Gabrielle [00:34:49] Yeah. So this is the last question. Gaby, I’m curious, after all your research, why do you think these people were dancing in the streets.

Speaker 4 [00:35:02] The reason why the Malagasy people danced Ramanenjana at that time, because I think dance is so much linked in our culture. Dance is a way of showing emotions. Dance is a way of linking the spiritual world and the living world. Dance is simply life, you know, in our culture in Madagascar, we have dance that is specializing for when someone is born until someone is dead. In this case of Ramanenjana, I think the people want to say a message that ‘do not sell the land, it’s our land.’ So at the same time, also, they want to protect their identity and culture by simply dancing and singing. That’s where Ramanenjana came from not fighting with guns and creating a war. But to convey this message, strong message, by simply dancing.

Gabrielle [00:36:17] Yeah, I think that one thing that this piece is kind of addressing is, you know, dance as a form of revolt or as you’ve talked about, a form of manifesting itself in public space. And what are those implications, and especially in a colonial time in Madagascar, and we still see you know the inequities between the global north and the global south in terms of, you know, just access to Internet, visas to tour work…

Simona [00:36:48] So practically, we also had like I mostly believe that this was some kind of protest or I wanted to believe that this was a protest, you know, that people were dancing because of a protest. But from what they found out also from Gaby, but other people I talked to, they do not see this as a protest, but as a protection ritual or like a group protection ritual or ritual through which they are protecting their identity, their way of doing things, their kind of social interaction. So it was something more like, like, like this. And also we talked about like if, if this is political or not, you know, this big discussion that we say today that everything is political. And we also had this discussion, you know, how much, let’s say, politics were actually involved in in the dance and also very different opinions in between also Malagasy wise men and wise women and men and people they also have different opinions over how much political involvement was in this, in this dance. So yeah, this is the situation.

Gabrielle [00:38:09] Awesome. And I have one more last question just super quick because you talk about it as a docufiction and is that because about you said like about 80% of the text is drawn from historic sources, but the rest is fictionalized. So that’s why you call it a docufiction, or no?

Simona [00:38:24] No, actually, I’m… You know that in performance we have this format of lecture performance. And in let’s say in film, we have this format of doc fiction. Maybe it would kind of go into the same category. So for me that I also come from film, so my first studies were in film. I’m still working as a filmmaker. I’m actually trying to kind of mix the both, both of them. So the show cannot be named as a lecture performance, you know, because it’s more spectacular than a lecture performance. It usually is. So I felt that goes more into this idea of a docu-fiction. You know, when you mix documentary, documentary information with fiction, but also it contains fragments or parts of the process you went through while doing the show. So this is also an important aspect of the of the docu fiction, let’s say genre in a way. So yeah, that’s why. So it also itself referred it creates this self- I don’t know-

Gabrielle [00:39:38] Referential Simona [00:39:38] -referential, yes.

Gabrielle [00:39:42] Self-referencing, yeah. Well thank you so much. It’s been so great to get more insight into this work, into your collaboration, into all the research, into the, the subtext, into, you know, all this speculation that goes into the, the meanings behind this historic event and how you’ve treated it for the stage. We’re really so excited to have this be an opening show for the festival. So January 19th to 21st in partnership with The Dance Centre. We’re really looking forward to having you in January for this upcoming PuSh festival. So thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.

Simona [00:40:17] And have a nice day.

Gabrielle [00:40:21] PuSh Play is produced by Ben Charland and Tricia Knowles and supported by our incredible community outreach coordinator, Julian Legere. New episodes with Gabrielle Martin are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, please visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @PuShFestival.