In time-bending 'Spirit Child,' Chicago debut leans into choreographer Qudus Onikeku's Yoruba culture

Editor's note: The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago is postponing this presentation due to difficulty obtaining visas for artists traveling from Lagos, Nigeria. Those who have already purchased tickets can call the box office at 312-369-8330 for a refund, if desired. As of March 10, performances of Abby Z and the New Utility on April 9-11 shall move forward as scheduled. The Dance Center will present Qudus Onikeku in the fall as part of its 2020–21 season, announced May 1.
On stage and off, movement artist Qudus Onikeku lives between worlds. As his theatrical persona, Azaro, he navigates between the material and spirit worlds in his solo work, “Spirit Child” (2019), coming to the Dance Center of Columbia College Friday and Saturday.
Onikeku first visited the Dance Center in the fall of 2018 as practitioner-in-residence, creating a group work for a student concert, but this will mark the first performance of his own work in Chicago and the North American premiere of “Spirit Child.” 
Like his theatrical alter ego, Onikeku lives in constant transit between the spiritual, intellectual and artistic homes of his native Nigeria, Europe, and the U.S. In a recent phone interview with See Chicago Dance while at home in Lagos, Onikeku described himself as “a migrant. I’ve always been an artist balanced between two worlds.”
As a young artist, he said “it was always difficult for me to connect to Nigeria…There was perpetual coming and going…(with) a willingness to belong neither here nor there.” Describing a triangular constant in his career between Europe, Africa and America, he found himself “always wanting to leave.”
“I made my first work in Paris in 2010,” he said. “While there, a friend gave me the book as a gift.”
The book, “The Famished Road” (1991) by Man Booker Prize-winning Nigerian author Ben Okri, reminded his friend of Onikeku. “For some strange reason, I didn’t read it until seven years later,” he said, his voice rising in a crescendo of hilarity. “What?? Unbelievable!!” He found the book “fascinating, (especially because of) the way I think about time on a fictional level; (it’s) always tied to exile in my head.”
Onikeku’s “Spirit Child,” inspired by the novel, follows the struggles of Azaro, a spirit who, in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, lives between life and death.
Born into the ghetto world of a large, unnamed African city, the life Azaro leads and the tale he tells are filled with tragedy. Tension between the land of the living, with its violence, political struggles and temptations, and the carefree kingdom of the spirits is at play throughout the novel as characters from the spirit world constantly descend on Azaro, beseeching him to return to their world. Azaro resists, compelled by a deep allegiance to his beloved parents.
The book posits a belief in the coexistence of spiritual and material worlds—a defining aspect of traditional African life and of Nigeria’s ancient Yoruba culture in particular. The novel was written “to give myself reasons to live,” Okri said in a March, 2015 interview with The Guardian.
An equal passion ignited Onikeku’s imagination when he read the novel, triggering a project that would address his profound feelings about colonialism, exile and political instability throughout the history of the Yoruba people. He is especially interested in how body memory is transmitted, and in the power of dance to heal both dancers and audience.
The research and development of “Spirit Child” also signify a marked shift in Onikeku’s personal and artistic commitment to enlightening his audiences and perpetuating Yoruba philosophy and culture through dance.
Meeting Brazilian visual artist Fernando Velazquez at a 2018 artists’ retreat in Uruguay led to a rich collaboration that would further that commitment. Velazquez was “very open, generous and curious,” Onikeku said, and he knew about Yoruba culture. He recognized that they shared a mutual fascination with indigenous culture. It was this shared sense of past, present and future “that wasn’t from a western point of view,” he said, one that originated “long before (an African) connection to the West, about inclusion” that crystalized a mutual sense of “a future in the way we speak about art.” Onikeku resolved that “if I don’t understand this (Yoruba) culture and ways of making meaning (from it), no one will.”
Velazquez’s visual design for “Spirit Child” consists of 18 tree-like wooden structures on stage. They become a forest, a prop or ritual totem. They create “the idea of separating space, dividing the material world from the spiritual; what you see and don’t hear, what you hear but don’t see,” said Onikeku. Velazquez has also created a series of abstract video projections that create prolonged echoes in the movement and sound. 
“The music of this piece is the real backbone of the work,” Onikeku said. “Everything we try to do hinges on the music, drawn from songs from Yoruba culture, texts of divination, incantations, words and poems, drums and flute, as well as the modern electronic guitar sounds of jazz." Three musicians perform live on stage, one dressed in white to represent the living, one in black to represent the dead, and one in red for the unborn. “The sounds work to restrict spaces of freedom, until the Spirit Child, the perpetual child, travels by means of death, grief and tragedy,” said Onikeku. When the Spirit Child is reborn, “it creates a sense of liberty in the moment.”
Onikeku, born in Lagos, Nigeria, is a 2009 graduate of the National Higher School of Circus Arts, France, where he studied both dance and acrobatics. His work incorporates a seamless blend of contemporary dance, hip hop, jazz, mime, and acrobatics. His signature style and performance impact is that of acute emotional presence and immediacy, totally in the moment on stage. 
“The show doesn’t really begin or end,” Onikeku said. “Time, we are still here.” 
“Spirit Child” runs March 13-14, at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $30, available by clicking on the event page below.