Refusing to Bow Down: Dorothée Munyaneza speaks about “Unwanted”

(L-R) Holland Andrews & Dorothée Munyaneza, Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Dorothée Munyaneza’s Unwanted will have its New York premiere at Baryshnikov Arts Center TONIGHT (September 21-22). I saw her Samedi Détente at Under the Radar Festival in early 2016 and am still carrying the power of how she brought forth her personal memories into a performance that ripped open the wounds of the genocide in Rwanda and my own and the world’s appalling ignoring and ignorance.

With Unwanted, she explores the physical and mental repercussions of rape used as an instrument of war. As part of her research to develop the work and in a commemorative journey, Munyaneza conducted interviews with women survivors and their children. Through a potent mix of movement, song, and text, Unwanted gives voice to their stories and investigates how the female body holds, moves, and operates within the confines of a lived trauma. The work is performed by Munyaneza and experimental musician Holland Andrews (aka Like a Villain), and created in collaboration with French electronic composer Alain Mahé and South African visual artist Bruce Clarke.

Dorothée Munyaneza is a choreographer, dancer, actor, and singer. Originally from Rwanda, she is of British nationality and currently lives in Marseille, France. After completing her musical studies at the Jonas Foundation in London and combining music with social sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University, Munyaneza took part in Afro Celt Sound System’s Anatomic album, and composed and sang part of the original soundtrack of the film Hotel Rwanda. In 2010, Munyaneza released her first solo album, produced by Martin Russell. Munyaneza then collaborated with English composer James Brett releasing the album Earth Songs in 2012. Upon meeting choreographer François Verret in 2006, Munyaneza entered the contemporary dance scene and performed in four of his productions. Since then, Munyaneza has worked with such artists and choreographers as Nan Goldin, Mark Tompkins, Robyn Orlin, Alain Buffard, Rachid Ouramdane, and Maud Le Pladec. In 2013, Munyaneza founded Compagnie Kadidi and created Samedi Détente, which premiered in November 2014 at the Théâtre de Nîmes. Unwanted is her second piece as a choreographer.

We recently spoke on the phone.

Holland Andrews (background) & Dorothée Munyaneza, Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage

M: Thank you for agreeing to the interview. I was deeply moved by “Samedi Detente” when I saw it at Under The Radar. The work challenged my personal sense of global awareness and motherhood. I wondered if my (then 12 year old) daughter would have the tenacity to witness or survive such experiences. As I ponder how your next work addresses rape as an instrument of war, I am extremely curious about several things and also wary, scared. Rape and rape as an intentional act of war are horrific and hard to talk about.

D: I know that; that is why I wanted to speak about it. After Samedi Détente, I realized I needed to keep talking about subjects that are not easy to speak about, to grasp, or to share in a space where they could be understood, on the stage. Instead of a lecture or a conference, the power for this lies within the arts. How else can we go deep into these matters in the body, into the words, into the trauma? I’m using all of those experiences to bring about something artistic, and piece them back together, even though the final image will be something disfigured. I believe as artists we need to put together something that is broken. I am borrowing words from a close friend, Hlengiwe Madlala Lushaba, a S. African, Zulu, a phenomenal young lady that I really admire and when we’re talking about our work we say that as artists we are here to mend that which has been broken. Somewhere down the line, the audience is carrying our own broken pieces, our own broken parts as we are rebuilding ourselves.

Unwanted really came as a way of looking into the body. Looking at the bodies of women who have been violated in such a violent way in times of war. While men are invading our geographical territory, they also invade the body of the woman to break that spirit, but also to break the social body, the political body, the psychological body. When it is being programmed, when it is an instrument of war, it is not craziness. It has been thought through as a way of destroying as many women as possible, leaving as much fear and destruction behind as possible.

M: I was born in Vietnam, there were children who looked like me that were the result of both consensual relationships and rape – children with the markings of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. They were called ‘bui doi’ – dust children – abandoned, too clearly marked as a product of the enemy for the mothers to care for them. It’s not nearly the same as weaponized rape or the level of “unwanted” that you must have encountered in your research and interviews with these women and their children. I wonder how the idea of “fathering” comes out.

D: Samedi Détente had been about sharing the memory of my own experience, my people’s experience. While I was thinking about subject matter that I could address, I started looking into different documentaries from the Congo. I saw a documentary about a doctor who has devoted his life to operating on women who have been raped in Eastern Congo, L’homme qui répare les femmes by Thierry Michel (about Dr Denis Mukwege). Dr. Mukwege has opened a clinic, he’s operating day and night, on old women, young girls and babies. He really touched me. I wondered how can I keep going, what else can I see, what else can I watch. I began thinking that I could look into the question of my country. From the film Rwanda, la vie après, paroles de mères by Benoît Dervaux and André Versaille and Mauvais souvenir by Marine Courtade and Christophe Busché. I learned that a great number of women had been raped during the genocide. These children who’d been born of rape were called “bad memory.” You hear them speak about knowing they are the descendants of rape, of violence. There is no attachment to the father. The mothers were raped by so many men that there is no father. Or, the mother’s entire family has been exterminated by one of the fathers. They are the offspring of total violence. The offspring were “given” to the women. The men would say – “we’re leaving you a gift.” It could be a child or an infection. They would be infected with HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Some women are still undergoing treatment.

After watching these documentaries, I met Godeliève Mukasarasi. She is the founder of the NGO called Sevota, where women can meet and talk about what happened to them. She works to liberate them from the spoken trauma. It took many years to find the words to express what they went through. I went to Rwanda to meet her and meet these women. We went to rural areas. In Kigali, the capital city, there are therapists. But in rural areas, there is a silence, a taboo that is hovering over them. She goes to them to help them speak and sing and dance, to heal. She’s given them the ability to regain the ownership of their physical body and their femininity and their humanity and dignity.

When I went, I was scared. I didn’t know if they would open up to me. They are much older, and in Rwanda, due to cultural contexts and norms we are supposed to show respect. There’s a bigger silence that surrounds this matter. I was scared of meeting women who had been utterly destroyed. I was expecting physically weak women, most of them have been rejected by their family members. They survived genocide, but then their family remembers rejected them once they realized their daughters, sisters or cousins were pregnant with children from perpetrators. They couldn’t accept that she would decide to accept this baby. These women carried the double burden of the horror of genocide and the rape and after the nightmare, the violence and rejection continued. So, most of them live alone, some don’t speak to their brothers or sisters. They are pushed into a silent corner.

They were surprised that I had come all the way from France to listen to them and speak with them. They would accept me into their very humble abodes, often after working in fields. They would welcome me with the little they had and with warmth and beauty. I would sit for hours and I would say could I please record you. I wanted to see how they move, how they hold themselves, how they stand, how they smile or cry. This would be the physical material that would feed my work. I wanted to be pregnant with their movement so I could give birth to what they shared. I thought they would be really low, really weak and while some are, I was still sitting next to women holding their heads high because they have no other choice but to stand.

They use a saying that they are “holding a stone in their crooked spine.” They have learned to move with that. How can a body so violated… how do they stand, how do they even bend down? They had no treatment during the period of genocide. Some of them were rotting, their thighs, their vaginas. This intimate body that was decomposing, was dying. And yet, through that dying they gave birth to life. After 9 months they gave birth and breast fed, nourished. Some thought – even during the gestation – thought they were growing animals – not human. One even refers to her son with the name that her aunt called it, her hyena.

M: This summer, while working on a new piece for La MaMa, I was asked to write a biography on a few index cards. My rape made it on one card, but more than 30 years in the past it has not been an event I addressed in decades. What it made me realize, though, is that both my mother and I share that experience. The privilege of an American upbringing couldn’t save her first daughter from the same ending, or the same beginning… Though the conditions were very very different the event is the same, the ripples endless. We were both raped at 14 or 15. I’m watching my daughter (almost 14) dress and sometimes pass as a boy and I hope that this choice will protect her. I wonder if there is something about gathering the stories of other women that revealed something to you about your own? 

D: There were all of these images and these stories. They really were the material with which I went back home and listened to, in Kinyarwanda – my mother tongue – so I could translate it. I want people to hear the gentleness and beauty of the language – so I translate it live on stage. It becomes the material that I improvised with my other collaborators. All these different testimonies became the thread of the piece. Then, I fed these Rwandan women’s testimonies, but the histories are full of examples of sexual violence against women. Les femmes de Visegrad, a film by Jasmina Zbanic deeply touched me too and it speaks about Bosnian women who were raped during the war. A very beautiful and poignant film. Jonathan Torgovnik’s photographic work entitled Intended Consequences is truly important.

In former Yugoslavia, Chad, Syria now, a lot of women, even in America there needs not even be a war for a woman to be violated.

So, I wanted to bring together this choir of women onto the stage. At first, I had begun thinking it would be a solo. Then, a year ago in Portland, I met Holland Andrews and she sang. I heard how she used loop pedals and her voice to manipulate her single voice to become different ones with different colors and ages. It brought to mind all of these women’s voices that I had heard from, and read in books and heard in documentaries. I knew I needed to carry this piece with another woman who was coming with experiences from a different continent as also the women coming to see it will be.

M: I wonder about community, but I’m not sure how to ask. I have questions about how these stories entered your body, what the sensations of gathering and recalling and creating and performing are or how they differ.

D: Sometimes people think – “It is happening over there, so it does not concern me.” It concerns all of humanity. Men and women. It is so terrible that we cannot keep going as though it does not exist. Hopefully this piece will open up doors and windows. It is violent, I knew it was going to be a violent piece – I do not want to reproduce the actual rape itself, but I wanted to bring into the physical body the violence, the broken body. Whenever we were talking I would ask the children if they had accepted themselves. I asked what their relationship to their own being to their psychological bodies was. Some would say ‘Yes,’ they accepted themselves. Some say ‘How can I when I know what my father did to my mother, to my older sister, to my grandmother’. It was a very sensitive question to ask. It would open up their story.  

I would begin by telling them my story growing up in Rwanda and when I would ask that, they would talk about themselves. When we would finish talking with the mothers, I would ask if I could take a photograph. They would go into their bedrooms and come back out totally changed. It was such a metamorphosis – disappearing and reappearing so beautifully dressed. It was such a gift they were giving me. They’d say: “We just gave you our most traumatic testimony, but we want you to carry with you a memory of us that is dignified, that is beautiful.” That is when it clicked for me that Unwanted is about finding that space where life is going to take over, no matter how gloomy or how bad. Here is this femininity that is refusing to bow down, to give up. How does one rise from the dust? How does one rise from the ashes? How does beauty reconcile us from the ugliest aspects of our lives? I began thinking after it is all stripped away… The testimonies are the guidelines for the audience to come back to. And still we navigate in the body and with the music. For me these are the complimentary tools of expression on top of the body. That is how we carry on transmitting what are we testifying about, so we don’t forget what we’re talking about.

M: I’m wondering how you anticipate this experience, this work, in this NYC, in this US will differ from a year and a half ago.

D: We’ve performed in Avignon, Athens, Berlin. So, not too many times. But, it is lived, it is living. Every time after the performance women and men speak with me and I think it is touching them in a particular way. With Samedi Détente arose awareness or pointed to the lack of awareness about what happened in my country. Unwanted goes into singular memory and collective memory. After the show, it is an emotional moment. These human beings that I’m meeting in that space have been touched in a way that is theirs. There is this monumental woman who IS so many of us, regardless of where we are coming from. It is also a metaphor for other experiences, for the violation of the earth. A woman from Seoul told me that she felt this piece was speaking to her as a woman but was also bringing back the memory of the separation of North and South Korea. How do we regain this human communion, this human mending of the broken. How do we? Is it possible? Unwanted is a piece that I view as a beginning of this kind of endeavor. Even though it is an artistic piece. I’m not pretending to be speaking out for all the women who have gone through this. I am trying to be a part of the dialogue. To speak up and do it boldly, beautifully, unapologetically.

These young girls and boys I met were very similar to any young boy or girl you would see in Kigali or here or anywhere. They’re aware of themselves. Eager to seduce and be seduced, looking fine, looking beautiful. The place where I met them was a huge school where was held a week long seminar for a great number of the children born of rape. They are between themselves, so they can freely say what is on their minds and their hearts. A lot have been beaten up whether by mothers who had a relationship of love and hate with them. Up until they found love for themselves could they then love their children. Most of the children didn’t know about their fathers until quite late, so they didn’t know why they were the scapegoat for violence. Godeliève Mukasarasi told the mothers to tell the children who they were. It was so violent that often they would turn against their mothers. It took a really long time to accept oneself and accept this truth. How does one become – once they have found out the truth – how will they define themselves in society knowing they are the offspring of violence. It is up to mothers, and society as a whole to break the cycle of violence. So, how do they accept this and their surrounding community accept this and stop calling them ‘bad memories’ and call them as they are called.

Now that the piece is created, I want to know how I can contribute to their well being. I’m not just carrying their stories and testimonies. How can I contribute to dreaming and help them climb higher like supporting the NGO Sevota. It’s not just speaking about them but finding ways to support them – or other organizations that help these people. I want to help them to stand firm and stand tall.

Soon, we will be at the TBA festival in Portland and the circle will be completed. After NYC and then Princeton, after the US, we are going to Sarajevo. So that’s interesting. Every time it is a special experience because through music and dance and the texts one hears or feels something is being stirred. Something is being reshaped and shaken up and disturbed. It’s not about entertainment here. We are creating and regaining power over the spaces within which we can navigate and express ourselves and make something bigger than us.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: