The powerful stage presence of Alesandra Seutin is immediately appealing. At the start of This Is Not Black, she rises from where she’s been sitting with her back to us, carefully removes her brightly coloured hair wrap, and politely but insistently invites us to pass it around among us – with the instruction that each person must smell it. ‘And don’t cheat,’ she admonishes.
This embracing (and slightly provocative) form of engagement with the audience is a key component of her very personal piece, named as a nod to Magritte’s This Is Not A Pipe and devised as an exploration of Seutin’s and others’ acceptance of her as an Afropean – with a white Belgian father and a black South African mother.
As such, it fits perfectly into London Southbank’s Africa Utopia festival, a multi-stranded event celebrating Africa and its diaspora. Seutin was born in Harare, raised in Brussels and has made her home in London, where she runs the Vocab Dance Company, forging connections between African traditional dance and contemporary and hip hop dance.
For this piece – her first real solo work, expanded especially for Africa Utopia – the stage is marked out with a square of shin-level elastic, chairs in three corners, a mike in the fourth. It echoes the skipping elastic of childhood games, also a boxing ring. And within it, Seutin gently spars with us, weaving movement and spoken word together over a soundscape augmented by Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s innovative, dynamic live cello playing (where the instrument, at one point is turned into a drum).
Seutin moves with a fluid grace, whether she’s demonstrating moves you’d associate with a Jamaican dancehall / soukous party (or, more than ever, a female pop star’s music video) – dipping, undulating, with whipping head movements and grinding hips – or tapping into more ceremonial tradition, with precise hand movements and staccato elegance.
We’re playfully roped into a game of 20 Questions at one point – where Seutin sticks name tags to her forehead and has to guess who she is from our yes/no answers. Given that the choices are Beyonce, The Queen, God and Alesandra herself, the responses prove highly amusing (even the opening gambit ‘Am I black?’ while she wears Beyonce’s name produces some lively dissention). It’s a beguiling way to highlight how our perceptions of individuals are shaped by our own preconceptions and how the same person can be viewed in a multitude of ways at once.
Seutin’s battle with that comes in a section where she vividly replicates anguished incomprehension and struggle through her movement, as her recorded voice repeats the wearying racist litany of ‘If you’re black stand back’ etc. But her final sequence, after inviting audience members to pin pieces of paper to her belt for a grass-skirt effect, is Seutin radiating a pride in who she is, freed – through a collaborative process of understanding – to be who she wants. Inspiring stuff; and while This Is Not Black often has the scratchy, rough-edged feel of a work that’s still in progress, Seutin’s charm, charisma and willingness to test audience boundaries is invigorating.