Review: Uchenna Dance - The Headwrap Diaries - The Place

Performance: 19 & 20 September 2016
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 26 September 2016

Uchenna Dance 'The Headwrap Diaries'. Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Reviewed: 20 September

Good hair is a concept that’s been high in the collective cultural consciousness recently. Beyoncé’s rival Becky is said to have it; comedian Chris Rock made a documentary about it; Barbie’s now comes in several stylish new variants and Eurocentric standards continue to dominate its definition in schools and in the workplace. The politics of African hair – worn long, worn short, worn in braids or with a weave – is the subject of Vicki Igbokwe’s new production for Uchenna Dance, The Headwrap Diaries, and it’s one that could run and run.

The piece opens in an oddly sombre mood, with three young women silently tying an ultra-long wrap of fabric around their heads and crawling backwards through a standard-issue contemporary dance corridor of light, spines undulating rhythmically and accented with lots of breath. Despite featuring some very beautiful fabrics, this strange scene adds little to the substance of the show and fits with the rest in neither movement character nor mood; The Headwrap Diaries could really stand to lose this section because the show picks up in giant leaps once the music kicks in and the three energetic performers get stuck into Igbokwe’s signature combination of contemporary-inflected African People’s Dance, voguing and waacking.

The Headwrap Diaries takes us through the personal histories of three characters danced by (and possibly loosely based on) Uchenna company members Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Habibat Ajayi. A scene in which Ajayi wishes for long, blonde, wavy Barbie hair is one I can quite closely identify with – although it was long, straight red hair that I longed for in childhood, instead of my own sandy kinks. An extended mime sequence in which Ajayi’s non-blonde, non-Barbie hair is energetically de-tangled, teased and twisted into antennae braids by Clemenson’s stern matriarch brings hoots of recognition from much of the audience; another sequence in which the resulting hairstyle is met with derision in the playground brings with it a more poignant familiarity.

The best parts of the show are undoubtedly the pure dance sections, which are beautifully rehearsed and performed with infectious energy. Clemenson is a notably fierce performer, waacking with fearsome speed and precision. The dance sections are interspersed with spoken word segments, the appeal of which depends on how comfortable or not you are with a deliberately stylised, exaggerated style of acting. For me, bigger rarely equals better when it comes to dramatic performance, but the audience around me seemed unconcerned.

Some of The Headwrap Diaries borders on opaque to the uninitiated – a sequence in which Attah performs her auntie going to the hairdressers for the first time ever had people around me rolling in the aisles with laughter, and I must confess I have no idea why. At other times, Igbokwe approaches her potentially deep, rich subject with too light a touch; single-word phrases spoken by the cast such as “beauty”, “heritage”, “condition”, “texture” are left hanging in the air rather than explored in detail. I wanted to know more – is beauty related to heritage? Where does condition come into the mix? Should we be wrapping our heads in fabric or voguing with a weave? Igbokwe leaves these questions not only unanswered but barely scratched; without wanting to be told what to think, I wanted to hear more about her performer-characters’ experiences and how the subject of African hair interfaces with the wider social issues of female beauty standards and self-presentation.

As an entertaining night at the theatre, however, The Headwrap Diaries certainly hit the spot. A handily-located headwrap stall in the bar outside the theatre did brisk business after the show, including one sale to your reviewer, and if that’s not the definition of an inspiring performance then I don’t know what is.

Catch The Headwrap Diaries at The Lowry, Salford, 18 October
More tour details:

Photos: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher who writes about dance for many publications, including Londonist & Arts Professional. Find her on Twitter: @lisekit

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