For the African American Michael W.L. Courtney, a.k.a. Ras Mikey, life is a movement. Starting from the follicle, a heartbeat, up to movements such as the civil rights and Rastafarian causes; all help to form him.
A multi-disciplined artist who defies category – a choreographer, director, educator, singer, songwriter, producer and lecturer. Having a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Arts in Philadelphia, he has collaborated with artists and prestigious companies such as the Pilobolous Dance Theater. He has also worked with household names Philip Hamilton, Ben Harper, Wyclef Jean, Aster Aweke, Sonja Sanchez and the Marley family. Founding his company Fore I’m a Versatile Entertainer (F.I.V.E.) Productions, he brings an alternative artistic form to dance. Transcending all the differences of the performing arts, his motto is that he tries to bring oneness through the movements of different cultures.
Living in Ethiopia helped him to create a strong bond with his spiritual home and his roots in Africa. With the reconnection he blended the dances he knows with Ethiopian cultural traditional dances, like eskista. Before moving back to the US, he taught at Eallaz International Dance School, worked on many different projects and was part of the communal life in Ethiopia. Touring and working in different projects, he sat with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of the Reporter to talk about his journey. Excerpts:
The Reporter: what are you doing in Ethiopia at the moment?
Ras Mikey: I am just making sure that my family is safe and secure before I go off to finish my masters in Ireland and start my PhD. I am doing my masters in Ethnocoreology, which is essentially an interdisciplinary academic approach of looking at cultural dance and dance anthropology.
My specific focus with my thesis is how I embodied Ethiopian cultural traditions and used them as a tool in my creative process as a western contemporary artist.
How are you embodied with Ethiopian culture?
I’ve lived in Ethiopia since 2006. Being a professional performing artist, especially in dance, I am an observer of movement.
For me as an artist in the western contemporary world, I think it is very important for them to look at Africa as a continent, as opposed to an origin. I am working on developing an Ethio-modern dance to promote the Ethiopian cultural tradition, and show how it can be used as a tool and a creative process for an African or a diaspora.
My embodiment of the Ethiopian tradition comes from my exposure to the culture from living here in Addis and traveling around to other places, and I learn most from watching.
You also coined the term Ethio-modern dance. What does it entail?
For me, Ethio is my connection to the African continent, with an emphasis on the Ethiopian cultural tradition. Modern is the state in which I am living now, and all of the things that I have brought. So it is a fusion of my connection to the continent of Africa, more specifically Ethiopia, and my experiences as a contemporary artist working, producing work and learning around the world.
How is the fusion? You are a dancer, so it might be easy to pick up the different moves, was eskista and the other dances easy to pick up?
People that see me do some of the cultural dances might think I am really affluent with them, but for me I still feel like I am learning and Ethiopia is a vast nation with over 80 different nationalities. So there is a lot to absorb culturally with the traditions and the movements.
At first it was not easy, especially with eskista. They say eskista is probably one of the most complex cultural dances, and looking at it you think of how the shoulders are articulating in a certain sort of way, coming from a foreign perspective. Then you can really analyze the movement and discover how much you tried to break it down and make it move slower in your mind.
You can see how they are articulating and accenting the rhythm of the music with the shoulders, and with the rest of the body. So for me it is about breaking things down at a bare minimum, that is how I teach. Even when I teach Ethio-modern dance, that is what I do.
Do you feel like you have created a new form of dance?
I think even without the Ethiopian tradition as an influence in my work I am doing something original, because I am original. Ultimately, the information I am given is just a thing that I use as a tool. Ethiopia is just another tool that I am adding. So yes, I feel as though I am creating something that is original because I am original.
I think everybody’s individual experience is what makes them original.
I recognize that I am who I am, and drive from my experiences to kind of show other people who I am. I definitely feel as though I am bringing something new, especially to the western contemporary arts community, by developing something like Ethio-modern dance.
Even here in Ethiopia it is new, because they don’t have my experience of the western world.
You had a show in Ireland that the Ambassador of Ethiopia attended. Can you tell me about the show?
My thesis is how I embody Ethiopian culture and tradition and blend it with my western contemporary experiences.
It is a part written thesis and part performance thesis. So I chose to do part performance, and use writing about my own creative process as my focus, with my thesis entitled‘kirb gin ruk (close but far).
Ultimately it was a process to get the dancers to learn what Ethio-modern is and to learn something, specifically eskista, because that was my focus with this particular piece.
It was performed at the University of Limerick, the Irish academy of world music and dance. I convinced the university to invite the Ethiopian ambassador and we did not know she was coming, but she showed up the morning of the performance.
It was my first time meeting her and my first time really corresponding with her. When she came I don’t think she really knew what to expect. I think generally she thought she was going to see somebody’s interpretation of Ethiopian cultural dance.
For me, I am not trying to duplicate the culture, I am only trying to be influenced and represent aspects of the culture. For her, when she saw the work, she was touched not only by the movement but also the music.
It was Aster Awoke from the Kabu album, Techawot. So she said it was the music and the essence that when she hears the song it takes her a place in Ethiopia. It gives you memories like Tizita.
She was very pleased to see that someone who is not an Ethiopian national can embody the cultural tradition in a way, but still give it something new.
She said to me in a correspondence through e-mail after the show that I am like the cultural ambassador for Ethiopia, because I am exposing a unique part of the culture that a lot of people in the western world won’t ever see unless they actually come to the country.
So I felt honored that she came and also very honored that she was pleased with the work. She is very motivated to see how she can assist with any other thing I am doing with my PhD, because I am continuing with the research of Ethiopian cultural dance and what I am developing with Ethio-modern.
I guess it is a good thing, as opposed to the negative images of Ethiopia that are projected to the rest of the world.
How did you get here, your personal journey and the changes you went through coming to Ethiopia?
It is interesting because you know my life changed when I came to Ethiopia, because I felt like I was coming home. And then I met my wife, the first time I was here in 2005. I wasn’t really looking for a wife but I recognized this was the woman that I was supposed spend the rest of my life with.
The adjustment was very abrupt. I taught myself Amhraic from a book. I had to redirect what I was doing with my life to be here in Ethiopia. She gave birth while she was in law school so I had to be here to take care of our son. I did not really think at that time of the concept of trying to support my family with dance in Ethiopia, and I couldn’t go back and forth; I needed to be there for my family.
I started to do more dance projects in Ethiopia, at Alliance Ethio-Francaise with the dance group
Transformation is a feature of your dances, what do you add?
It was interesting but I didn’t realize I was adding a lot of things. But people would point out many things that were related to Ethiopian cultural dance.
Actually, I did a lecture at a conference in London about how the Ethiopian tradition has this relation to dance in the continent, as well as all over the world.
Such as Harlem shake, if you look it up in Wikipedia, it says it originates from eskista. There are these correlations, but most of the people don’t draw these connections. For me, I didn’t realize I was pulling from these cultural traditions because I am one of those people who learn through osmosis.
Even in Ireland, I am picking from the Irish cultural tradition and utilizing some of their tradition; it’s how I create my work.
What was the challenge of living in Ethiopia and trying to support your family with a dance career?
The challenge is always financial. I am an artist who entertains, but I am an artist first, I never did it only for the money, but I have certain practicalities that I had to take care of; obviously I need money.
It was a struggle because it was very difficult for people to understand the type of thing I was doing. The promotion for the school was not as good as I wanted it to be, but I was essentially directing the school and teaching six or seven dance styles, so I could not do everything.
I am hoping that in the future I can open another school that’s not just fixated on dance but on the performing arts in general.
I am still doing my things here independently in Ethiopia and I am working on different projects, even outside of dance. The spiritual aspect of Ethiopia is influential to me. Within the next few years I will be traveling to the different regions and seeing how they perform these ritual dances within the context of where they are, as opposed to just seeing the different regional dances in Addis.
For me, my research is very important, ethnocoreology is about learning how the dance is a reflection on that specific culture. I do plan to do more trips in the coming years with my Ph.D. research.
At this point in life, what is dance for you and what was dance for you?
The reality is I don’t look at what I do as dance, I look at life as movement. I am product of my parents, who were involved in the civil rights movement, I grow in the hip hop cultural movement,
I am immersed in the Ras Tafri movement. There are all these different movements in a walk of life.
I feel honored that I am able to study dance as a movement. Dance for me is life, because movement is life.
The experience I had as a professional artist – I worked with a company called Pilobolus dance theatre in the US – taught me a lot. They look at dance from a very pedestrian standpoint. It is a dance company and they don’t focus on traditional contemporary techniques.
They look more into how you can use the body as an organism or like a physics project; such as how you use weight sharing and counter balancing.
Being able to see how they manipulate movement from pedestrian aspects allows me to watch and draw from people in the way they move, and be able to create and learn things. Your body never lies.
When did you become a dancer?
I started studying dance when I was at university. I have always been a social dancer. For me I am not only a dancer, but also a performing artist. As a child, I wanted to be a singer. I always sang more than anything, in choirs and shows. I did acting when I was a kid, I have done spoken words. I am diverse.
I feel like I am a living contradiction to what people perceive of who people are. I did not really see the arts as a reality because I came from a very athletic family. I played 13 years of American football and 11 years of basketball.
I am the youngest of five, so I am heavily influenced by my brothers and sisters. One moment also made me analyze things. I drove to Atlanta in 1996 for the Olympics, I remember there were block parties all night everywhere in the city.
This one particular party I was with my friends and I was dancing; I had my eyes closed with no idea what was going on around me. When I open my eyes, I realized that nobody else was dancing and it was a big crowd of people around me watching me dance.
I was like ‘am I that good?’ For me I am very spiritual. Bob Marley says one good thing about music, ‘when it hits you, you feel no pain’, and that has always been me.
Music gets inside of me. My body becomes the music. When I went to school, I was torn, I was a social work major. I switched to business and I was wrecking my brain because I was not motivated.
I don’t really know what happened but I saw a performance and decided I could either dance, act or sing. I decided to dance, I thought it would be the easiest.
I didn’t realize how hard training as a dancer is. When I started, I was more under the impression that I was going to do commercial dance, more like hip-hop because that was my culture.
I started to take dance classes and I immediately switch my major. There was no hip-hop class at James Madison University and I was drawn to contemporary dance.
I was still leaving the school and I was doing different workshops with different artists, in hip-hop and West African dances.
There was something I realized with contemporary dance, I could be hip-hop and contemporary.
I was discovering myself as a rasta, discovering who Haileselassie is. Being able to study the words of his majesty I could see the works of Christ in a completely different way.
So these types of things became my motivation. And I left that school after two years and transferred to the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where I got my BA in modern dance. I was there to train with more traditional and contemporary dance techniques, because that was one of things that a lot of people I would meet in the professional world would tell me I was lacking.
My naivety is what brought me to that point. I had no idea what technique was or where your center of gravity is in your body. The more I studied, the more I developed these skills. As soon as I graduated, I was hired by Pilobolus and everything else continued into place.
When you said ‘I could be hip-hop’, what was the influence of hip-hop?
Now the hip-hop is hip-pop, because for me growing up hip-hop was not a popular music genre.
Hip-hop was not designed to be popular music, it was a platform of youth expression and it was not just about rapping.
Rapping was one of the nine elements in the temple of hip-hop. There are all aspects of the culture of hip-hop that I grew up within.
You don’t do hip-hop, you live hip-hop. There is no separation on what I wear, the language I use, the way I express, I am hip-hop.
The idea of living hip-hop is just about living you. Now hip-hop has become this popular thing and rap music is the thing that is promoted. Even when I had a hip-hop show in Sheger, they asked me to play hip-pop. They wanted to hear rap or current popular rap music. A lot of music that was done was sampled. Hip-hop is not something new, it is just a continuation of all that came before; soul. I don’t believe in separation, I believe in integration.
How do you express those movements in your dance?
For me there is no separation. I don’t really try to express naturally, it just happens because of my experiences. If I am doing something that is associated with reggae or Caribbean music, that side of my exposure to Caribbean or rasta culture would come out. All of the things are there. All these things are part of my identity. It is interesting because many places I go to, they talk about black, African oriented dance. I am not trying to label what I do.
How was working for the company?
When I was at the University of Arts, I was still thinking the only way to make money in dance is to do the commercial thing. In 1999 I met my current business partner, for my company Fore I am a Versatile Entertainer or F.I.V.E productions. He had done a lot of work with Raven Simon, the Disney star. Her management called him to do the choreography for her tour. She was doing a recording album, so he hired me and my other business partner to be part of the tour.
That was my first real commercial experience of doing a pop tour. We were the opening act for N Sync that summer. The three of us built a foundation, which is when we established our company. I took a semester off from school to do the tour and the sacrifice I was making to earn money was eating away my integrity as an artist and as a spiritual person. We all went back to school. We recognize that we want to be artists, but we also want to entertain. One of our early mission statements was to bridge the gap between concert art and commercial entertainment.
So that experience helped me to understand that I am more of an artist than an entertainer. Even after that I would still go and direct and perform with Raven Simone.
When I graduated in 2001, Pilobolus was hiring and they were offering a world tour, salary and health benefits and I auditioned. I had a little knowledge about the company, how it was improvisation oriented.
I ended up getting hired. Being part of the company helped me how to move less as an arbitrary mover, and how to use movement to say what I want to say in a very minimalistic and efficient way. The company was featured in Oprah and it was a big one. Their work is unique. I left the performing company in 2003, but still did a lot of work for their satellite company and independent projects. I was still doing special projects with them. I came to Israel with Pilobolus s and decided to come to Ethiopia, when everything changed. A lot of people were surprised by my action. I did a project with them after I moved back to the US in 2011, in Italy.
How do you stay independent? Usually very difficult for a lot of artists.
It is very true, one of the models in our company is a key to continuity in any industry versatility. For me, it was not being only a performer but how can I use this art form to live. The life of a performer is short lived. I always taught and I think teaching has been one of the things that allowed me to sustain myself as an independent artist. What I am working on now is furthering my own education so that I can solidify attending university jobs, somewhere in the US or Europe. So, I have a better income, so my family can live a little bit more comfortably.
What is the way forward?
I am still discovering who I am. The way forward is to continue what I do, there are many things on the horizon. I want to come back to Ethiopia to do more workshops. In Ireland I am doing a lot of projects inside the university as well as outside. Even in the US I am still doing a lot of projects with my production company. I want to keep things very international and bridge the gaps of the world.
by Tibebeselassie Tigabu
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