Dance is a very integral part of any culture in the world. In recent years, dance has become a very profitable venture in Nigeria, but events that culminated to the establishment of this veritable entertaining profession remains unknown to most rookies in the business and the appreciative audience. Muyiwa Osinaike is more of a living encyclopedia of the Nigerian dance brand. In this exclusive interview with BRANDPOWER, the veteran speaks on how he fell in love with the art and craft of dance, the series of events that led to the incorporation of the art as a professional business in Nigeria and how Nigeria can fully explore the inherent benefits of the dance brand.
The piece is written by Ayomide Oriade.
Your name has become an institution when it comes to dance in Nigeria. Let’s start from how you got introduced into dance?
I was inspired first of all when I was 7 years old. We used to do our normal end of the year party in school. We did some cultural dances but I watched one programme on TV, it was ‘Iyanla’ by Hubert Ogunde on WNTV. I started looking at dance as what I wanted to do. I experienced the Civil war, I saw Choppers fly over here in Surulere going to drop bombs somewhere and I was like I want to be a pilot. But after watching Iyanla; a total theatre concept, I thought I could do this and also be on TV. So that was my first serious contact and thinking to be a dramatist.
As I grew, I started shaping up interest until I met Obalende in 1974/75. I used to go to lessons during his rehearsals in Mushin. After some time, I went back to Ijebu Ode for my secondary school. When I got to Ijebu Ode I fell in love with the Dramatic and Cultural society. I joined them immediately I got into school and since then I got hooked completely.. When I was in school, I was the president of the cultural and dramatic society. I wrote my first play when I was in class three; ‘Vengeance from the Grave’ and I directed it. Then I wrote another ‘Ta lo gbe Omo Oba’. I produced and directed it and I took them to College of Education, Technical Schools, Modern Colleges and Teacher Tanning College because of the commercial purpose and we made so much money back to school. I told myself in school that I am not going to work for anybody. When I left school, I went straight into professional practice.
You are saying that you didn’t learn this trade under a master?
When I came back to Lagos, I told my friend that we needed to push this thing further. I went to Obalende’s place but they had closed it up. So I stumbled on Omilani Theatre along Itire Road and by error of omission or commission I met myself again in the practice. So we started traveling from one state to the other. Then I was introduced to Epi Fanio who turned 70 recently. He was part of my beginning. He trained me in modern choreograph dance steps. In theatre you have to do Alarinjo. Alarinjo theatre is a traveling theatre. So we were hired to go round because we don’t have too many Cabaret dancers. I also did acrobatic moves so I was always invited to travel with the team to Ilorin, Kaduna, Zaria and sometimes as far as Cote d Ivorie. Sometimes we traveled for three to six months before we returned to our base. All these for as low as 30 Naira and sometimes 1.50k after one month; but the joy was there. I knew why I was there. So I was not interested in the money.
Then came the Ogunde experience. That was ‘Aropin n teniyan’ where I went to Ososa and I was on location with them. Then I experienced a new training culture with people like Tajudeen Gbadamosi, Babaseun Olaiya, and all the wives of Ogunde. I now made up my mind that ‘this is my life’. I told my father that ‘this is what I want to do’ and he said I should get out of his house. He wanted me to be a printer like him, so I had to leave.
I came back to Lagos and started my own theatre company; Ise Oluwa Theatre organization in 1985. I taught them what I learnt and we became so popular among the Celestial churches. People started looking at me like a star. To learn further I disbanded my team and I joined Ananta Play House; if you were not in Ananta Play House in those days, you were not a professional. So I joined and discovered that it was another university entirely. We went through training from morning till night. Later, hunger set in, so I had to go out again. Then we were jack of all trades, master of all. I learnt how to carry camera, rig lights and other things. In the traveling theatre, you learn everything because when you are on tour, nobody manages the stage for you; you will dance, do the stage and do your publicity in the streets and markets. You perform for people and later invite them to come and watch your show in the evening. After the show, you have to load the bus and get going. It was rigorous but those of us who survived that time I believe have done well for ourselves.
Gradually, started developing dance interest and I discovered that there was much to learn. I learnt troop management from Bola Ibediga, African Heritage, I learnt dance drama specialization from Yemi Remi, Agogo Productions. When I went to Yemi Remi, late Sam Loco was there, Ajayi Ebuteme was there; they sat and prayed for me that I will learn well. When I went to Jide Ogungbade to learn poetry in motion, he said why do you want to combine so many things together? I said because I have too many things to do so I have to define my own form of theatre practice. So I had to put so many things together to bring out the Muyiwa Osinaike of today. In 1989 I joined Performing Studio Workshop with Chuck Mike there I learnt another kind of theatre. People call it ‘Guerilla Theatre’ we call it Arukusanka. Aruku is a master’s work; it’s when you are called to do something on the spot and it looks so professional that they won’t believe you just rehearsed for five minutes. So you must be a master to practice Aruku either with dance or drama it has to do with a lot of improvization. I met Felix Okolo and we decided to be partners. I became a choreographer with Chuck Mike and moved straight to Temple production owned by Felix Okolo to become a choreographer.In 1988, we did what changed our lives; a mass parade where we were trained in different aspects. Now I had to define who Muyiwa Osinaike would look like. I decided to sacrifice my acting life for dance. I decided to make dance a professional business in Nigeria. It was a calculated decision of which I set out every five years to ask if I was in the right direction and know what I still have to learn. So whenever I travel abroad for festivals, I stay for their seminars on festival organization and choreography. That was how I met somebody in Brussels at a calisthenics workshop so I stayed two weeks to learn the act of calisthenics
Is there a difference between choreography and calisthenics?
There is choreography in calisthenics but it’s a sports act. It’s under physical education programme. You must be able to create a choreographic movement that will result into a flowery bloom. You must have that choreographic artistry to be able to express your dream with children or dancers moving around to form one picture or letter. In order not to confuse myself, I kept my experience in my cupboard and decided to develop dance in Nigeria. So I wrote the first proposal for dance development. I gave it to the French Cultural centre and the German Cultural Centre. It was called African Project and then the German Cultural Centre director sent it to Berlin and the French cultural centre secretary told me that they were working on it that they’d sent it to Paris. When they came back in 1994, the French Cultural Centre turned it to Brunmachon contemporary experience. They later called me and I told them that this is not what I meant. I said what I meant is that you bring a choreographer and his dancers who we will teach the Atilogu and Bata and he would now use his body to teach us the new thing that comes out of his body. It’s like putting Cocoa inside the grinding machine, grind it and bring out the same Cocoa in another form. That was what I wanted to do to develop dance so I could create a new Atilogu concept that is not too traditional but contemporary in nature. So I went to the Gothe Institute and they said they were doing another African project and they turned it to theatre exchange between Nigeria and Germany. I left them because that wasn’t my intention. I told them to bring Pina Bausch from Germany, bring Linke from Germany. Let me come and teach them our dances here and let them teach us what we taught them and we take them as modern contemporary dancers of Nigeria. I was looking for something different so that when my mother is dancing Apepe dance, and I am doing my own Apepe dance, my mum would sit down and appreciate the difference in the old and the new. That was what I wanted but they didn’t give me that. So I called my boys, got permission from the government to rebuild the NCAC at the National theatre, set up my studio and started without anybody. But I was allowed to go into the French Cultural Centre library, the United States Information Centre library to read. I looked at their dances and the thinking so that it would affect my thinking so that I could create a new Atilogu. The German director now had a problem with creating a new project. They put out an advertorial and one UNILAG student won the story writing. They now had to call some of us to turn that story to a total Nigerian play. I told them I was not interested. So he came to my office to come and convince me. So I now sat him down and we performed eight dances that I had turned around. He was surprised. We took it to the French Centre and everybody was amazed and I told them this is my dream for Nigeria not the Brumachun experience. They still had their Brumachun experience but when my boys got back to Nigeria, it took me two to three months to tune their body back to Nigerian dances; including Dayo Ladi (the Olorioko dancer) he was part of that experience and Esther Laniyan. Most of them are abroad now. That was how I started. My Black Marble academy became so popular in Nigeria. It’s the same Bata dance but not the same system. So I started asking for 250 thousand Naira per show. We started attending international carnivals. Then every other dance company that could not meet up with my dance technique and strategy crashed. I started African Night at the Eko Hotel every last Friday of the month.
You were also a John Player Dancer. When was that?
That was in the 80s; that was just the disco aspect of our lives. I am talking about the professional dance business which encompasses all. What really changed that face of professional dance in Nigeria happened in 1995; the African Junior Nations Cup (Nigeria 95). The national troop did the opening ceremony and I was given the closing ceremony. I called all the professional dance companies together; about 400 of us did it at the national stadium and they didn’t want to pay us our money. So we blocked the entrance and the minister could not come down.
Why wouldn’t they pay you?
It’s part of the Nigerian thing. Okubule was the chairman of the ceremonial committee, Mike Okri was also involved because he sang on that day and they were owing him too, so we blocked the entrance together. Akhigbe (may his soul rest in peace) later came down and he ordered that we should be fully paid the following morning. We were paid the following morning like he ordered. The balance was a meager N35,000. So I said we won’t spend the money, that if we could stay together and prevent the President from coming down, we must not break up; so we would use the money to start an association. So we started the National Dance Union of Nigeria and latter metamorphosed to Guild of Nigerian Dancers. After that, other guilds started springing up. So that was how professional dance started in Nigeria. Besides the cultural and choreography thing you do, you are well known to be involved deeply in the Multina Dance Hall reality show. How did it start and what are your experiences so far?
I was in Abuja doing a project for the BPE when I received a call from Jungle Films that they needed a dance syllabus for one month. They said they’d gone everywhere but nobody was able to give them what will happen in a reality TV show dance syllabus for one month. I said “when do you need it?” They said “tomorrow”… I did the syllabus for 30 days overnight and forwarded it to them. They asked me to come to Lagos to defend it before the Nigerian Breweries. It was a joint presentation with Jungle Films of which I defended the technical area. Ifi Dozie looked at me and asked: you this big man, can you dance? And I said I would teach three of you how to dance here without drums and you are going to do choreography. She didn’t believe it. So I called some of the agency guys; two ladies and a man and thought them Hausa dance. And in five minutes they were able to do choreography dance. Ifi just stood up and said: “you guys, you got it”. That was how Multina Dance Hall started. So I had to supervise to ensure nothing goes wrong. The joker was that after three years, it will become a standing thing and after five years it becomes a classic. So Multina Dance Hall is now a classic. That was how I came into Multina Dance Hall and we are still trying our best to keep the show going till like 100 years because that is the only family dance show in the world. We put a lot into it: the Nigerian Breweries, agencies, individuals sacrificed a lot to manage it up to this point. It has also done a lot for Nigeria by exposing the Nigerian dance culture to the world and one thing that the federal government should give kudos to is that it brings unity back to the family. Sometimes a father will say: “I have not seen my wife in five years, this boy brought me here. I don’t want to dance.” We talked him to dance and as time goes on, the man becomes an integral part of winning the championship. About two to three of them have done that. So it is part of what is bringing Nigeria back to having that family morale.
What will you describe as your most memorable experience so far?
The most memorable experience for me was very tasking; it was Eko 2012. I had to deal with 1000 students in calisthenics. I changed my own and I put cultural calisthenics; so I put the fishermen, ladies selling wears, people running around and also our folk life. What made it challenging was that I had worked in many other states across Africa but I had never worked in Lagos. I was also to use 600 Queens College girls. The one I did in 1999, I was given the chance to pick from different schools before the Koreans came three days to the event and just showed what I did and claimed they did it. I wept. They wrote it in the Guardian: “Muyiwa sweats in vain”.
You mean you started the project?
I had finished the project, just three days to the opening ceremony they brought the Koreans…
(Cuts in) …to do what?
…To come and take over from me. Moreover, when Ahigbe came to approve calisthenics, it was my show that he watched!
Didn’t you have a contract with them?
It was a gentle man’s agreement; I didn’t push it further because I knew I made a mistake. So I left and decided I wasn’t going to do anything in Lagos again. So this time, it was a challenge. I had to go and defend my concept with the commissioner. I really wanted to tell Lagosians that you don’t need to go to Korea or Germany to get something spectacular. And this time around, I didn’t use professional choreographers; I used my son and four others who are dance instructors and one principal from Abeokuta. That was the most challenging because any mistake by a student on the line it crumbles. So must be near perfect! I lost weight and so many of my voices that I have not fully recovered but it was a huge success and even the commissioner commended it. And even the Queens College girls that I thought were going to give me problems turned out to be the most fantastic. That was my most challenging experience ever; making money was not as challenging as that…
I was going to come to that. I hope it was also the most rewarding?
No, it wasn’t! In terms of cash, it was the least I had ever done. Though Ogunde used to tell us that sometimes what you do will not bring you money but it will bring something more than money. I got job satisfaction, dignity of labour and professional satisfaction from it. In Nigeria if not in Africa, I remain the only choreographer from the dance hall that will do calisthenics. It always comes from that aspect of physical exercise to learn the act of calisthenics.
This brings us to a very important aspect. From the story you’ve told us, you didn’t go to a formal school to study all these but you have actually been studying both formally and informally. What will you tell someone out there who believes he can make a career out of dance?
The first thing is that once you can think or dream it, you can achieve it. Times have changed. During our time, our parents didn’t see anything good in dance or theatre. But now due to our efforts, parents are beginning to see the good aspects of these things. Now I don’t have to tell you to go to school, you know you have to go to school. Then, it’s not that I didn’t want to go to school but there was no money! I was brought up in a polygamous home where you are on your own. I had to go fend for myself at a very early age to survive. I used to go to the market to dance for one man that brought a camera where you peep and see Mecca and Medina. The man will be playing the beat and I will be dancing and doing acrobatics. People will the gathering to watch. In the end, the man will give me 2 penny and I was on.
What that also means is that you were also gifted to be doing that so early?
Yes I was, so you need to have the talent and also the belief that you can do it. So many people that you see now making it big, I picked some for Ajegunle. I raised them morning and night at the theatre. About 42 people camped at my theatre for years. I groomed them and took them abroad for festivals and they are now big dancers. They’ve built houses and also ride the best of cars but they started from here. I wept when I realized there was no money for me to attend university but when we get to our alumni meeting today, I am like a star. Though we now have lawyers, Teachers, Politicians, professors among them, but when they see Muyiwa they want to take photographs and autographs. So it’s about personal determination. You must also be ready to read. I read everything in life! I was a regular at Seaback library. I collected theatre syllabus from my friends in the university and then went to the library. I read from morning till evening. That is why I can talk about theatre and dance unlike any other person in the world. I am now writing an Encyclopedia of Nigerian dances. I have been on it for seven years. I hope that in fifteen years I should be able to complete it because it is voluminous. I am on chapter 4 now which is about 5,200 pages. That is a document for children yet unborn. Then if your father is fortunate to be among the elite and can sponsor you, we have specialized schools for dance. You don’t have to go to a university because you don’t really need your certificate. It is what you can do at one point in time. If a street hawker can dance more than you either you are a lawyer or professor, he would earn more than you. So don’t die to read theatre. Another important thing that the Nigerian Universities Commission should look at it in theatre schools in Nigeria, there is no dance in their curriculum because the syllabus for theatre is so wide, they don’t have time to teach dance. I go to some schools and see their practicals; 400 level student doing dances meant for primary school pupils and I will feel ashamed. They should therefore read theatre and go out to dance academies to read dance. Dance syllabus alone is about 23 subjects! A theatre technician cannot be a dance technician! You must know how to write direct and manage dance.
So you are saying there are several facets under dance?
Yes! There are 23. So the Nigerian University Commission should encourage dance academies that can issue degrees just like universities. I am working towards that. I and my colleagues are putting a paper together to the Nigerian Universities commission so that when we are going; at least I have spent 50 years on earth now; I can look back and say yes, I think I have done well for dance in Nigeria.
Apart from dance, what else is Muyiwa Osonaike about?
My joy apart from dance is theatre directing. I love live theatre so much and I write plays. I love writing true life stories. I have written about the amalgamation of Nigeria, I call it ‘Ajogbe'(Living Together), I wrote Life and Times of Mary Slessor , I wrote ‘Amanamba’ story of the killing of twins, I wrote ‘Ma Udoma’ the women riot in 1929. One area of my life that I will also like to celebrate is my ability to organize festivals. I can organize festivals for the world in a jiffy. All the festivals I go for abroad, I do workshops to know how to organize festivals .
You mean dance festivals?
Any festival, I am an event consultant now; for festival organization, event packaging, concept development, and sometimes direct theatre shows. The last one I did was the translation of Fred Agbeyegbe’s ‘Woe Unto Death’ (Egbe ni Funku) to celebrate Ayo Opadokun ‘s 67th birthday in September.
You don’t write fiction?
I don’t really enjoy it. Now I am writing what I call ‘The Eulogies of AFAMACO’ the story of Pa Umodu and labour struggle in Nigeria. It is meant for performance on the 1st of May this year. I don’t like writing fictitious things because it’s not really challenging. You can hide and avoid some things while writing fiction, but I want to be seen as a real person and it also afford me to know so much about our culture. I feel so elated and proud being a Nigerian and I still think our power is in our diversity. We are so rich, we have so much to offer the world if we are permitted to. I also love poetry in motion due to my time with Jide Ogungbade. I can adapt a collection of poems into a play. I did that with Eddie Aderinokun’s Dance of the Vultures, Mile Stone by him as well. I have converted four of his books to drama.
You told us just now that you have spent half of a century on earth and definitely you must have a family. Can you tell us about your family?
Two boys and a girl. My girl is 22, in Ibadan Polytechnic studying music. My two boys are grown-ups. My first son is 26 and the second is 24. They are all in entertainment business; they just want to be like their father. I told them to choose their path. One is a full time singer and the other a full time drummer.
Would you say brands in Nigeria have fully leveraged the opportunity that dance offers?
They’ve not done 10 percent. I used to tell some of my friends in agencies that they are not maximizing the dance potentials in Nigeria. There was a workshop lecture that I gave in 1995 where I said I had a dream that one day in Nigeria, if you want to do an advert and you don’t use dance, your advert won’t sell. And today, that is what is happening. One way or the other, dance must be part of that advert. If only federal government can look at dance business in Nigeria and empower the dance sector over 10 million people will be employed in a year. When a dancer is performing, 20 people are working. And those 20 people will feed their families. So if a dancer is performing in each of the 774 local governments, that is 774 multiplied by 20. The dance influence is so wide but they are not fully tapping into it. Dance is our life. When we give birth, we dance; during marriage, we dance; birthdays we dance, even during burial we dance. So why can’t we explore and exploit the potential of dance branding in Nigeria?