Refracting the Bodies That History Struggles to See / Review of Dorothée Munyaneza’s Toi, moi, Tituba

Dorothée Munyaneza performs "Toi, moi, Tituba" dance.
Dorothée Munyaneza performing Toi, moi, Tituba at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany (August 10–12, 2023). Photo: Dajana Lothert.

Performance under review

Toi, moi, Tituba, a dance by Dorothée Munyaneza, reviewed at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany, August 10-12, 2023. Previewing a presentation at Chaillot – Théâtre national de la Danse, Paris, France, May 16-18, 2024.

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Toi, moi, Tituba begins with careful exactitude. Upright fluorescent tubes populate the stage: a sparse but luminous grove. As musician and collaborator Khyam Allami takes up residence behind a small station of equipment, choreographer and performer Dorothée Munyaneza enters the space with a series of slow, deliberate lunges. She takes a long step forward and her arms cut up into the air, flexing outward, then swooping back down—each time, they descend just before or behind one of the scene’s glowing posts. There is a strange satisfaction in watching Munyaneza’s arms cycle through this series of precise articulations. The nearness with which her hands almost skim the long light bulbs feels calculated—never quite grazing the scenography, but always conspicuously close.

“How can we bring resonance,” Munyaneza asks in a program note, to “the breaths, lives, and dreams of those whose identities and existence were denied and crushed by the slave trade and colonization?”1 Her choreography aims to forge what philosopher Elsa Dorlin, in an essay about Maryse Condé’s 1986 novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, calls “an aesthetic of the trace” in the afterlife of the plantation.2 Riffing on Condé’s title, Toi, moi, Tituba names the “most notorious character”3 of the seventeenth century Salem witch trials, an enslaved domestic worker who was also the first accused witch to confess.4 In the tales and tourist attractions through which Tituba’s life is most often narrated, VK Preston observes, this complex personage tends to be surrogated by racial stereotypes. By performing on Tituba’s behalf, Munyaneza explores what a choreographic exertion in the present might offer to such a figure occluded by history.

Dorothée Munyaneza performs "Toi, moi, Tituba" dance.
Dorothée Munyaneza performing Toi, moi, Tituba at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany (August 10–12, 2023). Photo: Dajana Lothert.

After meticulously navigating around the poles of light that dot the performance area, Munyaneza shifts directions. She lowers the tubular bulbs to the ground and gathers them up into piles with a spike of urgency. In the more open space, Munyaneza sets about a gestural sequence that looks something like measuring. Thumb and pinky finger outstretched to create a unit of distance, Munyaneza’s hand shuffles over the surface of the stage. Quick flips of her wrists and rapid spins all appear geared toward working out the spatial dimensions of the location where her endeavors take place. Yet measurement is no neutral practice. Colonization, too, is a precise art, defined by the logistics of transplanting peoples and places. And in the crucible of rationalization, accounting, and accumulation through which modernity takes shape, Tituba vanishes.

Thus, a paradox: can the materiality of Muyaneza’s body both recall and combat  quantification? Can dancing exceed the logic of the count? While Munyaneza at first expends her effort to assess what the scene of performance can hold, she gradually refocuses on embodiment’s own affordances. Her attention migrates from the surface of the stage to the contours of the body. Munyaneza punctuates her movement with percussive actions: she shouts, snaps, slaps her thighs with open palms, claps her hands together. This is a choreography of searching, of feeling through the body to find something just on the outskirts of sense, on the periphery of historical memory. As the work progresses, snaps of anticipation become the winces of arrival. When Munyaneza eventually dons a gauzy white cloak, the fabric’s volume and motion amplify her almost celebratory torques and contractions. The work does not build to a climax that serves as either a culmination or a transformation. Rather, the dancer finds a sustaining efflorescence: embodied effort has carried her to a choreographic juncture in which she can enjoy her energy’s ongoing expenditure.

Dorothée Munyaneza performs "Toi, moi, Tituba".
Dorothée Munyaneza performing Toi, moi, Tituba at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany (August 10–12, 2023). Photo: Dajana Lothert.

The percussion produced by the dancer’s actions is only one element of Toi, moi, Tituba’s singular musicality. The work’s sense of time—its pace and dynamic shape—is a constant collaboration between Munyaneza and Allami. Gesture responds to rhythm, creating a rhythm of its own in turn. Regularly throughout the piece, Munyaneza also lends her voice to the sonic terrain. She makes her way to a microphone standing at one corner of the stage or the other to sing, delivering an incantation, a melodic proclamation. Her performance feels like an offering launched beyond the architecture that holds it, resonant with the particular immediacy of devotion. It’s a song as much for Tituba, as for Munyaneza’s rapt audience.

While Condé and Dorlin are explicit references for Toi, moi, Tituba, Munyaneza’s project also moves in alignment with the work of Saidiya Hartman, whose scholarship often takes up the difficult task of “assembling and composing alternative narratives of Black existence”5 even amid the archive’s “violence, excess, mendacity, and reason.”6 Critical fabulation—what Hartman names her approach to speculative research and re-narration—has become a key term for practitioners and institutions across the artworld. In a fall 2021 collection rehang, New York’s Museum of Modern Art dedicated a gallery to recent works that evoke Hartman’s method. Deanna Lawson’s Assemblage (2021), for example, collects found photos—many portraits ranging from the candid to the ethnographic—into tessellated planes of pictorial density. The historical thickness of the accumulated snapshots is highlighted architecturally: surface becomes three-dimensional as the piece covers two sections of gallery wall extending out from a corner.

Dorothée Munyaneza performs "Toi, moi, Tituba".
Dorothée Munyaneza performing Toi, moi, Tituba at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany (August 10–12, 2023). Photo: Dajana Lothert.

As a performance,  Toi, moi, Tituba emphasizes the dimension of time in its critical fabulation. And across the work’s duration, the dancing body initiates amplification. Particularly in her 2019 book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Hartman turns to the chorus as a historical formation: a modality for imagining togetherness that maintains the granular sensation of being one among many. The chorus is neither an anonymous crowd, nor a group in lockstep. It is a “swarm, ensemble, mutual aid society.”7 The chorus transforms “a line of separate dancers into a shared body finding a common rhythm.”8 It attests “to the flow and frequency of black locomotion, to the propulsion and arrest of history.”9 In American choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili’s Sitting on a Man’s Head (2018), the chorus includes audience participation, with spectators encouraged to join in walking and spontaneous sounding.10 Inviting intentionality and relationality, Okpokwasili’s work allows collaborative responsiveness and independent agency to coexist in “a feedback loop, a place of return, a chorus, and a refrain.”11

As one program note observes, Toi, moi, Tituba functions as a “choral solo piece.”12 Yet in contrast to the more additive or participatory approaches Lawson and Okpokwasili demonstrate, Munyaneza brings forth her chorus via abstraction. The lone fluorescent tube that glows bright magenta throughout the work offers itself as one stand-in for Tituba, metonymic for the proliferating historical erasures Munyaneza seeks to address. And when the dancer stands and sings at the stage left microphone, a carefully positioned light casts an immense and growing shadow, which engulfs the back wall of Berlin’s Villa Elisabeth. Munyaneza’s body appears doubled and enlarged, but not exactly reproduced. Both soaring shadows and light sources themselves allegorize the absent bodies being sought. If Tituba appears in both light and shadow, a thing and its opposite, then she is everywhere. As much as Munyaneza’s piece is an effort to find and figure Tituba, Tituba in her omnipresence becomes the condition of possibility for the performance space itself.

Dorothée Munyaneza performs "Toi, moi, Tituba".
Dorothée Munyaneza performing Toi, moi, Tituba at Tanz im August, Berlin, Germany (August 10–12, 2023). Photo: Dajana Lothert.

It is apt that Dorlin calls the type of historical affiliation for which Condé’s novel provides a method “refractory,”13 a term that refers to how light bends as it moves between media. Munyaneza’s work foregrounds the dancing body’s capacity for scattering, rather than accreting, images. Illumination and shadow, the improvisatory interplay of resonant voice and live-produced music—these are the vaporescent materials of Munyaneza’s historiography. Using them, she creatively skirts direct representation, and adds to the arsenal of aesthetic tactics through which historical redress might be envisioned. The chorus joins this solo via refraction, rather than accumulation. Obscured subjects and erased bodies are angled through the prismatic medium Munyaneza’s dancing provides, and given space to appear, however diffusely, alongside her.

Yet unlike a prism, the dancing body does not disappear into its refracting activity. Munyaneza’s exertions, which conduct and curve history, finding both momentum and musicality in the process, elicit and hold the attention of the assembled audience: that other chorus in the room.

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  1. Dorothée Munyaneza, “Toi, moi, Tituba” Festival Sense Interdits,  (Translation my own.)
  2. Elsa Dorlin, “Me, You, Us: I, Tituba and the Ontology of the Trace,” Yale French Studies 140 (2022): 74.
  3. VK Preston, “Reproducing Witchcraft: Thou Shalt Not Perform a Witch to Live,” TDR: The Drama Review 62, no. 1 (2018): 146.
  4. Preston, “Reproducing Witchcraft,” 149.
  5. Saidiya Hartman, “Intimate History, Radical Narrative,” Black Perspectives, May 22, 2020,
  6. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (2008): 2.
  7. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 254.
  8. Ibid, 268.
  9. Ibid, 176.
  10. Many thanks to Okpokwasili, and the members of UChicago’s Movement Theory Reading Group, for sparking and fueling these thoughts on Hartman’s writing.
  11. “Sitting On a Man’s Head, Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born,” Danspace Project, April 14, 2020,
  12. Toi, moi, Tituba,” Dance Reflections by Van Cleef and Arpels,
  13. Dorlin, “Me, You, Us,” 75.