Not My Enemy

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Not My Enemy is a qualitative research project that uses storytelling, interviews, dance, and film to explore my journey of healing my relationship with my birth father—the man he had become after the Vietnam war. In addition, this project delved into the larger story of how war affects the generational development of families. 

My research began with questions such as, "What were the mental and emotional constraints African American veterans' grappled with as a consequence of fighting and surviving the Vietnam War?" And "what coping mechanisms did veterans use to reintegrate into society while rebuilding connection to family and community?" I explored books, articles, narrative film and documentaries on the Vietnam conflict and America's involvement in what would become known as "the war in Vietnam." 

However, finding Wallace Terry's book—Bloods—and listening to "soul music," which portrayed African American social and political thoughts, helped me to delve into the complicated and complex facets of life in and after the war. 

 

Combining the methodologies of narrative and phenomenological research, I grew my understanding of the trauma of war and its effects on my community and choreographed a dance built upon embodied somatic practices.

 

Somatic practice connects and integrates the mind and emotions with physical sensations allowing the dance artist to connect multi-faceted subject matters to powerful movement metaphors.

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Six years of research, reflection and processing went into creating the choreographic work Not My Enemy. I envisioned a cast of four to eight African American males (a squad). Choreographically, the movement vocabulary for Not My Enemy needed to embody the physicality of soldiers engaging in acts of struggle and survival particular to war. Therefore, I choreographed most of the dance outside in a park to sense nature's elements and investigated how the terrain would affect a soldier's movement. Vietnam soldiers had to navigate high grasses and a watery landscape before the forced deforestation of the Vietnam landscape. I also created the work in soled shoes to be reminded that the dance had to replicate the likeness of soldiers moving in hard, confining shoes. The use of their feet had to take on a different articulation than the typical training of dancers in soft-soled shoes or bare feet. 

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In addition to physically preparing for the choreography, the dancers had a responsibility get in touch with the character they were playing in order to perform with authenticity and integrity. They were required to mentally and emotionally embody the inner life of the soldiers. It was imperative to work with dance artists who could find understanding and compassion for the life of soldiers like my father and the many veterans in Terry's Bloods. Each dancer read the book Bloods and individually researched any aspect of the war that intrigued them. The dancers discussed their findings in rehearsals, explored exercise prompts to personify what they sensed and imagined from their research, and then used somatic practices to delve into the complicated and complex narratives of the brave men Not My Enemy represents.

 

Giving voice to the narratives of African American Vietnam veterans became an important motif within the dance work. Each choreographed section is accompanied by spoken word, chants, and spirituals. It was essential to use faith-filled music as it historically has been the anchor in complicated African American life matters, most noticeably seen in the Civil Rights Movement.

Not My Enemy choreographed by Kehinde Ishangi

Not My Enemy choreographed by Kehinde Ishangi

…Reflections on Dance on Film

Not My Enemy was choreographed on KM Dance Project and had its first showing in New Orleans, LA, in the fall of 2017. The performance revealed an idea to take the research and human experience into a film project. FSU colleague and filmmaker Tiffany Rhynard agreed to collaborate with me on the project. 

 

At the New Orleans dance concert, a gentleman approached me to offer thanks for telling his story and helping his family (who were in attendance) understand his Vietnam experience. His statement was astounding because, at this point, he is an elder around my father's age, and it's 40 years after the Vietnam war. Witnessing the retelling of an aspect of his life through art was powerful to me. In addition, attendees who worked in social work and psychology encouraged me to continue my exploration and expand the conversation. So then, I decided to use my art to transform, heal, and enlighten people about African American Vietnam veterans' human experience. 

 

In the beginning, the filming process was led by Tiffany's directorial eye. Parts of the stage performance were extracted and filmed in outdoor settings that matched my imaginings of the Vietnam terrain. I selected the most intriguing and provocative dance sections to capture the essence of the dance concert performance. 

Additional contributor Tejasvi Nagaraja, Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University's ILR School, bought insight into the historical, racial, and systemic practices that underlie the experiences of the veterans who shared their stories. And Florida State University psychologist and scholar Laura Reid Marks explains PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is now commonly discussed. Yet, it went largely undiagnosed for the veterans of Vietnam for decades.

 

Over several years of research, we found four willing veterans to participate in the film project. Interviews took place in North Carolina, New York, Georgia, and Florida. The film is 77-minutes long and discusses personal loss, history, race, and politics.

Collaborating on this film was a new experience because I had to figure out how to frame the story and the idea through film. Creating movement on a proscenium stage has a clear front and a prescribed vantage point. Yet, with the camera, you can have any opportunity to change the viewers' perspective. So, I had to learn to see movement from different angles and dimensions.

 

I discovered that I could use my knowledge of dance composition to articulate how I wanted the movement captured on film. Tiffany and I worked together to develop a strategic shot log detailing the look and tone of each shot, including the time of day filming would take place. 

 

The dance scenes in the film take on a new responsibility from the dance concert rendition, mainly because the narratives from the interviews are tremendously impactful, powerful, and visceral that the dance scenes augment their retold experience by providing a background to the layered complexities of their expressed sentiments.

 

I intend to continue creating more dance films and am excited to try new approaches to capturing dance on film. Gabri Christa's body of work inspires me because she invites me to explore the juxtaposition of the body to the camera and vice versa. I am interested in how the camera and dancer can communicate like a pas de deux.