© Tammo Walter

In Exótica, Amanda Piña examines the forgotten artists who were read as »other« and exoticised in early 20th century Europe. Despite their considerable popularity, these artists were not included in the canon of dance history and relatively little space has been allocated to them in the archives, which makes it difficult to reconstruct their biographies. Without claiming to be exhaustive, we have put together brief portraits of them, which we hope will make you want to find out more about them. We start with La Sarabia and devote the most space to her, because she was Amanda Piña’s great-great-aunt – and Amanda has a number of stories to tell from the family archives.

La Sarabia

There were always rumours in my family about my great-great-aunt Clemencia Piña, La Sarabia. At least, I thought they were rumours: that she was a famous dancer in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, that she had danced for the last Russian tsar and that there was even a French stamp depicting her. But then, while researching other dancers of the time, we found so much material about my great-great-aunt in the French National Library that we realised she was indeed a famous artist. However, when she died in Marseilles, none of my family went to her funeral. I believe that her daughter, who was also a dancer, was even buried in a nameless communal grave. And that haunts me. What happened? How can you be so famous and represent a country like France and then end up being simply discarded? Was it because she only represented the country (the empire) to a very limited extent? She still remained a stranger, even if people wanted to make her believe the opposite.

Clemencia Piña, La Sarabia
Clemencia Piña, La Sarabia | © BNF Paris

She died poor and abandoned, but her life must have been incredible. Her mother left Mexico with her when she was little, fleeing with her family because she had left her husband. You could not simply get a divorce back then. So her mother fled to Paris and led a dissolute life there, because she had inherited a lot of money. By the time this money eventually ran out, her daughter, La Sarabia, was earning her living from dancing. She became famous for the Danza Española, »Espagnolade«, a Spanish dance that was still rare and considered exotic at the time. Of course, she was not Spanish, she was Mexican, indigenous blood flowed in her veins, but she pretended to be Spanish and performed Spanish ballet very successfully all over Europe. And she actually danced for the Russian tsar. Something must have happened then, because she stayed in St. Petersburg for a long time. Some say the tsar fell in love with her, but we will never know. She was very successful for a long time, but then La Sarabia had a child by a man she had met, a Mexican. They loved each other, but his family was against the marriage, because they could not accept that my great-great-aunt was a stage performer. So they could not marry, and my great-great-aunt raised her daughter without a father, who suffered a lot as a result of the separation and at least sent money regularly.

Sometimes, I think maybe we are all reproductions of an ancestor; we are just unaware of it. I am very interested in the question of how we become what we are through the eyes of others. Amanda Piña

My aunt told me that she travelled to Marseilles to visit La Sarabia's daughter eight years ago. Her name was Lidia Siria and she was already an old lady by then. When my aunt rang the doorbell, Lidia opened the door and immediately slammed it shut again. When she opened the door again a little later, she was wearing a feather boa around her neck. Apparently, she realised that my aunt was the last Piña she would see in her life. So she gave her a ring, her mother La Sarabia’s ring. And a few years later, my aunt passed the ring on to me with the words: »I think this is meant for you. You are like her.« And now, I always wear that ring. I feel very connected to my great-great-aunt, there are many parallels in our biographies, although there is so much time in between. Some say we look alike – and indeed there are pictures of her in which I recognise myself. Sometimes, I think maybe we are all reproductions of an ancestor; we are just unaware of it.

I am very interested in the question of how we become what we are through the eyes of others. How much room for manoeuvre is left for us in this gaze? There is a certain violence in every designation of self and other that is inherent in cultural manifestations, because their standard has always been the white gaze. (I think the white gaze is male and heteronormative.) And we are still living that today, even though much has changed and the balance of power in the world has shifted. Today, we can have all these discussions and a festival like the Ruhrtriennale can invite me to show my work in front of a predominantly white audience. And even though there is still a certain brutality to it, somehow it is also refreshing and fantastic. How can we navigate through all these limitations today?

Ich glaube, es liegt für alle eine große Chance darin, ein Bewusstsein für den eigenen Blick zu erlangen. Amanda Piña

What is that gaze? How can we make it visible and therefore inactive? For me, the driving force behind this piece is not only to honour the memory of these wonderful artists but also to interweave them with our biographies today and learn from their dances and their courage. And I want to reflect – and in some ways undermine – the white gaze and play it back without being disparaging. I think there’s a great opportunity for everyone to gain an awareness of their own gaze. For example, the audience can reflect on the way they look and realise how many centuries that look has been shaped and how much that look shapes the world. Do we want purely to consume the worlds of others as an image – or can we become aware of the fragility of our own world through this experience? If we can become more sensitive to this, then we can grow from it and have a transcendent experience that takes us all somewhere else together. We can embark on a trip, a voluptuous ritual, together – transcending established identities.

Amanda Piña

François Fé́ral Benga
François Fé́ral Benga | © J.C Mehú Tam-Tam -Photographies

Francois »Feral« Benga

François Benga was born in Dakar in 1906 and moved to Paris with his father when he was 17 years old. At that time, Senegal was a French colony and, in keeping with the racist and colonial view that prevailed, Benga and his father were not seen as citizens but as colonial subjects, caught in a precarious situation that gave them few opportunities to participate in society. During the 1920s, Benga found work in the Parisian revue scene and accompanied Josephine Baker on the tom-toms for her famous »banana dance«. It did not take long for him to become a star of the Folies Bergère. His stage name, »Féral Benga«, roughly translates as »wild Benga«. Within the European construct of »Africa«, Benga represented the other in its most extreme form and a masculinity associated with danger. The European gaze was less interested in his enormous artistic potential and his talent as a performer; instead, it saw a strongly sexualised object: a black Mercury, a beautiful black Adonis. In the 1930s, he plunged into the French avant-garde, playing a black angel in Cocteau’s experimental film Le sang d'un poète. In 1934, he undertook a research trip to West Africa, together with his partner, the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in order to »collect« various styles of dance in a form of field study for Gorer’s not unproblematic monograph Africa Dances. Although he was queer, shortly before his death, in 1957, Benga married and had a son. The artist is buried in Paris.

Nyota Inyoka
Nyota Inyoka | © Lou Lou Roudanez

Nyota Inyoka

The dancer, choreographer, writer and teacher Nyota Inyoka was born in Paris in 1896. The story of her life moves back and forth between fact, invention, legend and self-definition. Her mother was French and, at the beginning of her career, she claimed her father was Egyptian. Later, he would become Indian. She probably did not know for sure herself. She gave her place of birth as Pondicherry and described herself as a »danseuse hindoue«, a Hindu dancer. In her heyday, she enjoyed an extremely fashionable lifestyle as a successful dancer and frequented the highest circles of Parisian society. However, her existence had a curiously fragile quality. Despite her great popularity, little was made of her death in 1971: she had probably already begun to be forgotten in the 1960s. She had appeared as Nioka-Nioka at the Folies Bergère back in 1917, was described as the »Perle d’Asie« and, from the 1920s, appeared in the lavishly designed revues at the Théâtre de l’Oasis managed by the fashion designer Paul Poiret. In 1931, the International Colonial Exhibition was held in Paris, for which she devised an Indian gala. As Inyoka had been famous for some time for a programme of dances whose Indian character was based mainly on bringing conventional historical and iconographic versions to life, she now also became an official representative of Indian culture. Encouraged by the positive reception she received, she founded a company, Les Ballets Nyota Inyoka, which made its debut in 1932 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, with a highly successful programme of reconstructed dances from India, Egypt and Ethiopia. By now, she had definitely »broken through« as an artist. Her company continued to exist until the end of Inyoka’s stage career in 1957.

Leila Bederkhan
Leila Bederkhan | © Die bühne Theatremuseum wien

Leïla Bederkhan

Leïla Bederkhan was born in Constantinople in 1903, the daughter of a Kurdish father and an Austrian mother of Jewish heritage. She was descended from Bedr Khan and, in Europe, she presented herself as a Kurdish princess. She grew up in Egypt, later moving to Switzerland, and made her debut in Vienna, where she lived with her mother, a dentist. For her international debut, she hired the Konzerthaus in Vienna, which gives some indication of the financial means at her disposal, which allowed her to lead an extremely independent life. She spoke several languages and travelled a very great deal: she spent her time in New York, Stockholm and Paris, and holidayed on the Côte d’Azur and in Austria’s Salzkammergut. Her story was another mixture of fact and legend, which she was clever enough to exploit in order to succeed in establishing herself as an »oriental princess«. She made use of exoticism where it was required, but also consistently included elements of Western dance styles in her choreography, together with Western instruments and costumes. She claimed to be expert in Druze, Zoroastrian, Indian and Egyptian dances, and styled herself as a representative of various different cultures that were read as »oriental«. The high point of her career was her performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1932, when she appeared as Belkis in the opulently produced ballet Belkis, Regina di Saba. After the Second World War, she retired from the stage and founded a dance school in a suburb of Paris, which was where she died in 1986.

Sincere thanks to Sandra Chatterjee, Christina Gillinger-Correa Vivar, Franz Anton Cramer and Nicole Haitzinger, who are jointly working on the FWF research project Border-Dancing Across Time at Salzburg University and have so generously shared their knowledge with us in conversation and through their publications.  

AMANDA PIÑA was previously a guest of the Ruhrtriennale in 2021, with Danza y Frontera. She is a Mexican-Chilean performer, choreographer and cultural worker who has lived and worked internationally in Vienna and Mexico City for many years. In her performances, as well as installations, workshops and lectures, she explores with anthropological sensibility the political and social power of dance and its entanglements between tradition and modernity. For almost ten years, she has been collecting movement practices threatened with extinction in her long-term project Endangered Human Movements and is concerned with the role of memory and archive in the context of decolonial emancipation movements. This article is based on a conversation with Ruhrtriennale dramaturg Sara Abbasi.