"A Piece of White Cloth" was first presented in 2004; this recording is taken from BOUNDtogether 2009, 4-6 December at Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco CA.
Alayo Dance Company presents "A Piece of White Cloth," in which the central character searches for plain white cloth and its religious power to save and heal. The journey is visceral and spiritual drawing on the living, ancestor and spirit worlds.
A Piece of White Cloth 2009
Ramon Ramos Alayo’s well-received choreography entitled A Piece of White Cloth weaves threads of modern, Afro-Cuban folkloric, and African dance into a single, hybrid composition. This work traces—in reverse and without interruption—the continuity of Yoruba movement, memory, and metaphor from its roots on the western coast of Africa, through Cuba, and into Bay Area contemporary dance.
In A Piece of White Cloth, Ramos examines the nuanced cultural meanings of white cloth in Yoruba and Cuban culture. Sometimes called “spirit cloth” in Yoruba, simple cotton cloth is associated with purity, conception, healing, rainfall, milk, tears, saliva, semen, and the watery spirit world. The most humble of all cloths, it nonetheless holds great transformative powers, and as such, is used in rituals including initiation ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. The spiritual force of white cloth to “heal bodies, placate spirits and metaphorically transcend the world of humans” is exemplified by this story described by Mary Kinsley in the 1890s in Nigeria:
“An old blind slave was found in the bush and brought to the Mission (near Creek Town). . . . She was in a deplorable state. . . . but her whole mind was set upon one thing with a passion. . . . What she wanted was a bit, only a bit, of white cloth. The missionaries refused to give her the cloth as it was associated with indigenous religious practices. The old woman, however, kept on pleading and saying the spirit of her dead mistress kept coming to her asking and crying for white cloth, and white cloth she must get for her, and so at last, finding it was not to be got at the Mission station, she stole away one day, unobserved, and wandered off into the bush, from which she never reappeared.”
The African concepts of plain white cloth were transported across the Atlantic with Yoruba peoples brought to Cuba in slavery. Though cultural continuity was severely disrupted under the devastating conditions of slavery, the philosophies of the motherland were tenaciously persevered on the mother island of Cuba. The worship of the Yoruba orishas flourished, veiled under a heavy mantle of Catholicism. Two deities in particular continue to manifest the meanings of the white cloth in Cuban culture:
Obatalá, (meaning “king of the white cloth”) is father of the orishas and all humanity. He is the source of all that is pure, wise, peaceful, ethical, moral, and compassionate. Obatala’s color is white, and therefore, he favors white materials, including silver and white foods.
Oyá, (meaning “she tore”) is the goddess of wind, storms, rain, fertility, destruction and sudden transformation. Oya is queen of the spirit world; she is goddess of funeral processions and cemeteries and intermediary to the ancestors. When she dances, Oya swings a horsetail.
For Ramos, white cloth—with its complex meanings and associations—is a metaphor for the cultural lineage that was torn and frayed, and yet not lost on the long journey from Africa to Cuba to the United States. Along the path of his ancestors and during his personal migration from Cuba to the Bay Area, he has dragged the white cloth wound around his body and has woven ancestral memories into his modern choreographic vision.
- Deborah Valoma