Qudus Onikeku is a France based choreographer who has carved a niche for himself in the international Arts scene.
He uses dance and acrobatics with Yoruba traditional philosophy as his medium of expression, combining it with several other influences such as hip hop, capoeira, tai chi and contemporary dance vocabularies.
Born in 1984 to a working class Nigerian family in Lagos, his journey to finding his calling is a difficult and intriguing one as he struggled to break through societal misconceptions and personal barriers to make his dream of becoming a dancer, a reality.
His work; ‘My Exile Is In My Head‘ was named a laureate of the solo category at the Danse L’Afrique Danse 2010 in Bamako.
In 2011, Qudus was commissioned by Festival d’Avignon and SACD to create STILL/life for Festival d’Avignon 2011. He’s a visiting professor at UC Davis Department Of Theatre and Dance and the founder of Nollywood week, Paris.
We caught up with the artist during his UK tour where he took us on a journey like no other, into the mind of a performer.
Like most successful artists, Qudus knew he wanted to dance since the young age of 5. The defining moment took place on the unlikely grounds of his primary school sports field.
“I saw a guy during inter house sports,’ he said.
‘He did a back flip and I thought wow! That’s cool.”
‘That unlocked something in my head and even though I didn’t know him or his history, I wanted to do what he was doing.” he told us.
How it All Started
“I started practicing on my own. It was like a complete unleashing of my freedom and I started accumulating the knowledge and skills until I could do up to five and even seven back flips”.
‘I wasn’t taught how to dance, I did it all on my own,’ he tells us.
A brilliant student at school, the natural expectations for the young Qudus was to progress to science class at the end of his juniour secondary school, but something was happening to Qudus at this point.
‘I don’t know how I made it through secondary school to be honest, I couldn’t remember anything worth remembering in class because my mind was elsewhere. All I could think about was when I would be able to dance again.’
‘The energy was just so much in me that I needed an avenue to let it out’.
And he found the perfect escape in his school’s arts and culture club. Here, he was able to participate in activities that fed his appetite for performance and made him better at it.
Even at a young age, Qudus’ passion was insatiable.
‘When I’m on stage, I’m so happy because, this is only thing that brings me joy’, he says.
As a result of his membership at his school’s cultural group, he was able to audition to become a member of the Surulere Dance Group, a role which he got.
The artist tells us he’s grateful for the existence of grassroots groups like these as he says without them, he would definitely have succumbed to pressure to study something else and neglected his passion.
This has inspired the 30-year-old to want to go back to Nigeria to set up more groups such as the one he went to, as a way of giving back to the community.
While Qudus was busy doing what he loved, his parents weren’t very pleased about the direction he seemed to be heading.
His dad had big plans for him to study medicine and couldn’t understand why his son would shun a lucrative career for ‘dancing’, a path not even considered as a viable career in Nigeria.
Although his father didn’t totally agree with his son’s choices, he let him feed his passion, probably in the hope that he would tire of it soon and hopefully go back to his studies.
‘My father is an amazing guy,’ he says. ‘He would never tell you yes or no, he wont encourage or discourage you and I’m grateful that at that stage, he let me do my own thing.’
Soon enough, the youngsters parents ordered him to stop dancing (which he promised to do) as it was starting to affect his academics, but the artist carried on.
After leaving school, Qudus spent a lot of time at the French Arts and Culture Centre in Ikoyi.
‘My friends thought I was crazy when I told them I was not in any university but that I was dancing. I heard about a workshop taking place at the French cultural centre, so I attended. This was contemporary dance which was a different genre from what I was used to and I was so interested. I went there everyday and spent most of my time there, just taking in the atmosphere, learning everyday and adapting my own skills’.
At 17, Qudus was already earning a living from his dancing. He received N4, 000 every time he performed with the troupe and they fell in love with his passion and tenacity.
It didn’t take long for him to catch the eye of the lead choreographer in the group who took him under his wing and offered him a place on a new dance tour coming up in Ibadan in a couple of months.
Meanwhile, the young performer had heard that the Lagos council for arts and culture were auditioning, so he attended. The directors were so impressed with his audition, he was selected out of the hundreds who had applied to join the group.
On how he wowed the audition panel, Qudus says, ‘I never thought it would happen. My favourite dance was Bata and Badagry dance when I was in school. Amazingly, they played these two on the day of the audition and to be honest, I was just having fun. It was a great feeling at the end of the process, to have been selected along with another girl.’
This marked another chapter in the artists journey to self discovery.
A few months later, Qudus got an offer from a French choreographer to join his troupe for a tour in Madagascar, this tour would eventually take the group to Croatia, Germany and Wales.
He says, ‘This was a bitter-sweet experience,as my dreams were finally coming true but I had promised them at home that I would stop dancing.’
‘Even though I was young and have never left Lagos before, I jumped at the opportunity because I knew this was what I wanted. The only challenge was how to convince my parents that I was traveling out the country to ‘dance‘. I didn’t even know how to tell my dad, I just blurted it out; daddy I’m going to Madagascar. He asked what we were going to do and I told him we were going to dance. I could see he was baffled that someone would pay for an all expense trip to Madagascar just to dance but thankfully he agreed. The show was amazing and opened my eyes to so many possibilities and as a result of that experience, I learnt how to speak french.’
I asked him why he felt Nigerian/African parents find it difficult to support their children in career choices that don’t include medicine or sciences.
‘They’re only trying to protect you, he says’.
‘Eventually your family will realise that they don’t need to protect you so aggressively. It’s all because they want the best for you. If you put in the hard work and turn your passion into a success, they’ll be happy to let you do your own thing.’
‘You need to fight society, or any other institution stopping you from doing what’s your passion.’
He adds, “The problem with the Nigerian perception is how we define success. We put value on things that don’t have value.”
‘Instead of concentrating on the money, why not focus on your passion? When you get that right, money will come along with success.’
‘Being in France showed me so much about what really motivates us in life. Its more about self realisation, even for Nigerians. It’s about what success means or what success signifies.’
The artist finally moved to France in 2004 after receiving an offer to join a performing group where he worked for two years before enrolling at the National Higher School Of Circus Arts, where he studied acrobatics and coined his own genre of dance called ‘Acro- Dance‘.
Qudus has received international recognition and critical acclaim for his work with raving reviews in South Africa, Europe and America. He also won ‘Dancer of the year’ award at the 2010 ‘The Future Awards’.
I spoke to him about his project; ‘My Exile Is In My Head‘, a solo dance/physical theatre piece inspired by Wole Soyinka’s prison notes The Man Died, which he performed at the Albany theatre in South London during his last tour.
He tells me his inspiration for the piece, which was one of the most successful works when it was performed at the Johannesburg Dance Umbrella festival in 2011, was borne out of frustration of not being able to do what he loved in his own homeland, following an unsuccessful attempt to move back to Nigeria and bring dance to the streets of Lagos.
‘I made this piece about exile because I see myself as an exile. I’ve never considered myself as an immigrant, I consider myself as an exile because I know where my heart is, I know that one day, I will go back home.’
We were lucky enough to be invited to see Qudus at the Albany and it’s no surprise that he’s become the successful artist that he is today. His performance was poignant, deep and haunting with a strong emphasis on the yoruba culture
‘When you’re talking about exile, you’re talking about where you’re coming from. A place that you are and most likely where you’re going to at the same time.’
‘It’s not political exile, it’s a thing that is linked to dance. The fact that I cannot do what I am doing at peace at home, hurts so much.’
On finding his passion, he tells me, ‘I didn’t come to dance. The way it came to me and took me away, it just blew me away. When you get to a stage that you start asking questions, you start seeking, this is when you’re becoming a dancer, every true dancer must go through that stage.’
Other works by Qudus include ‘Still Life’, Qaddish and Flash. He is also the founder of the Afro-Parisian Network, which is a monthly event that takes place in Paris.
It aims at exploring the social, cultural, philosophical and aesthetic interplay of African and Parisian cultures, and creates Interconnections/Networks between different creative people who takes root and/or inspiration from Afro Culture.