In this interview, performance artist Ishimwa talks about his new work Niyizi and how it connects to a bittersweet childhood in Rwanda. Part of IBT15
Ishimwa, can you tell us about the development of your dance career – what were the key moments that led you to firstly train with Rambert, and now bring you to perform at IBT15?
I grew up as an abandoned, hyperactive child. I discovered if I could entertain the adults around me, I’d get the attention I craved. So at parties or weddings I’d be the kid dancing whilst everybody else watched. At age 13, I started partaking in athletics. When I got injured my coach suggested I do dance classes as a form of recovery, so I started doing Jazz, contemporary and ballet classes. To my surprise, my jazz teacher felt I was talented, so she recommended I audition for Rambert School.
I must admit, I’d never heard of the school, so I walked in not knowing everyone was going to be in tights and ballet shoes. So there I was in my shorts, but confident because coming from an athletic background I was used to competition. Low and behold I got the audition and began a degree in Ballet and Contemporary dance.
Applying for IBT15 was a natural process. I enjoy creating dance, music and films but being a newbie means very few people are willing to invest in me, so it was great to discover IBT has a platform for emerging artists.
Would you like to share any of your childhood memories from Rwanda?
My childhood memories of Rwanda are bitter sweet. I lost my mother at age 4 and am still healing from the trauma of seeing dead bodies and losing her. Although I have always had a passion for all things pertaining to art, I began doing dance in particular because the discipline and consistency is something I lacked in my childhood. I think my work is impacted by things I’ve seen and heard.
Losing my mother and having an absent father forced me to raise myself up - in a way it encouraged me to build my own bubble which comes in handy an artist. I make art because I want to use my past rather than let my past use me. My biggest influence has been my grandmother. Although I don’t spent much time with her, when I am with her I feel acknowledgement and love, something the rest of my family struggled to show.
I am my mother’s only child. My mother, Niyizi, was a business woman, and she’d often be away from home, so as a child I was spoiled to compensate for her absence. I adored my mother and for a long time hoped one day I’d meet her on the street, even though I knew she was dead. Losing the most important figure in my life forced me to repress a lot of my emotions. To survive I learnt to shrink myself. I became cautious of everyone and to this day I still have trust issues. Dance and music has helped me tremendously in building up my confidence and gaining back the curiosity I lost at a young age.
Can you tell us about the “irrational religious ideas” that you chose to examine in your IBT15 performance Niyizi?
I was initially raised as a Catholic, and then in my teens I started hanging out with Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a child, I sensed what was taught in Catholicism was more of a ritual than a fact - it went in one ear and came out the other. In contrast, being a Jehovah’s Witness, demanded much more focus from me, and the intensity of the practice suited my personality.
I began to have a realisation that the beliefs I had learnt were irrational when I started reading psychotherapy books. It became clear to me that the religious ideas were in fact mind contracts, with a noble desire to explain the unknown.
To this day I am still searching for my identity. Questions like ‘what is important to me and why?’ often cross my mind. I think asking such deep questions help me in my creative process.
Mark Twain said that “humour is tragedy plus time”. Can you tell us why you are now in a place and time to be able to inject a horrific and personal subject with a dose of “poignant humour”?
Meditation has been key to my growth. When I joined Rambert School I had the desire to be the best dancer, but like my younger self, I shrank when I realised some dancers focused more on getting the adoration, rather than giving a sacred part of themselves. Now that I’ve received therapy, I have learnt to trust my feelings, hence the title Niyizi (which means ‘he knows’).
I find that nowadays most contemporary theatre work is dark, so I feel like the job of an artist is to take what might be a dark subject and find another dimension to it, and this is what I hope to achieve with Niyizi.
I also think that life is what we make of it. I like to think of the world as a playground that we’re all in. Some kids have better toys than others (cars, phones, houses etc.) but it is up to each of us to enjoy being in this playground with whatever we have. When I see it that way, judgement loses its position and joy replaces it.
Interview by Abby McFaul
Find out more about Ishimwa at IBT15 here.