A dance revolution

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Something vital is afoot in the world of African choreographic creation. For several years now, a questioning and unprecedented dynamic has taken hold in all four corners of the continent. From Abidjan to Ouagadougou, Nairobi to Johannesburg, choreographers are exploring new styles that reflect a profoundly cosmopolitan contemporary Africa, the receptacle of innumerable influences. It is a new body language that closely reflects their identities’ deep mutation. Who am I? No African artist can avoid this eternal question today. It confronts him/her with a burning novelty and urgency. The artist’s self-definition is at play in each creation. The socio-cultural stakes are particularly crystallised in current choreographic experimentation.
Expressing modernity
Choreographic creation has considerably changed on the continent in the space of just a few years. Along with the folkloric troupes and major national ballets that continue to exist, an artistic revolution has taken place at lightning speed. Only just recently, the notion of « contemporary dance » was largely unheard of in Africa. Represented at that point by a handful of precursors (Germaine Acogny, Souleymane Koly, Alphonse Tierou, Koffi Kôkô, Zab Maboungou, Irène Tassembédo, Georges Momboye), most of whom lived outside the continent, this term is now the object of passionate debate between artists. What does contemporary mean in Africa? Is it a continuity or rupture, rooted in a heritage or a clean break with the past?
If these questions arouse such passion, it is because they evoke a crucial issue – that of the African choreographers’ new identity. In the past, it was the legitimate concern of the artists who emerged at the time of national independence to assert their Negritude. Today, a new generation of black choreographers refuse to let themselves be trapped in the fetters of race, origin, or a continent. The children of African urbanisation and of globalisation, they consider themselves citizens of the world, as much artists as they are African, and assert their universality. « I am African, I am an artist, but I am not an African artist », the young Congolese Faustin Linyekula likes to say, coining the sculptor Ousmane Sow’s famous declaration. Whether you say « contemporary African dance », « creative dance », « traditional-contemporary dance », or « auteur dance », these labels all testify to the one same challenge facing this rising generation of artists, namely of expressing a new relation to modernity, in all its complexity, with all its contradictions.
The Western gaze
Nothing is easy for these choreographers, in either material or artistic terms. If they are too close to traditional forms, people reproach them for not innovating. But if they break away from them completely, they are accused of being acculturated. Hence the conflict and some artists’ confusion before an alternative they perceive as a dead-end. This confusion is manifest at each edition of the « Rencontres de la creation chorégraphique africaine ». By awarding prizes to young innovative companies, this biennale event set up by the association « Afrique en créations » (now integrated into the Afaa, the French Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Association française d’action artistique) has indubitably stimulated the emergence of new dance on the continent. This ambitious event – the only pan-African event that is both a choreographic competition and trade fair, the 4th edition of which was held in Tananarive in November 2001 – immediately proved itself to be a precious international springboard for young choreographers who struggle to make a living and create in their countries.
But there is a flip side to this success. Not only does the concept of contemporary choreographic creation prove to be radically different in Paris, Accra or Tananarive, but the fact that the competition designates certain approaches as better than others tends to reduce diversity. In Côte d’Ivoire or Burkina Faso, epigones of the award winning « N’Soleh » or « Salia Nï Seydou » are mushrooming, thinking that they too will woo the professionals who picked them if they imitate their style.
Many African choreographers and researchers have stressed that it is impossible for Westerners to evaluate this radically changing dance. They are concerned about the risk of the artists’ imagination being ultimately confiscated. The most levelheaded amongst them refer to an assistance culture, the most virulent to cultural neo-colonialism. « How can you train African artists, or even judge them, with tools forged irrespective of any African problematic, with resources based on the concept and experiences of people who, more often than not, know practically nothing about the ethical, aesthetic and social aspects of dance, the cement of African culture? » asked the Ivoirian choreographer and specialist Alphonse Tiérou in a interview in Le Monde1, even though he was in charge of the first Rencontres chorégraphiques in 1995.
There is a real risk of formatting African productions to meet the demands of the North’s programme planners, especially as most African choreographers are only accepted in their countries once they have made their name abroad.
Emancipated creators?
« Africans see their culture through the eyes of Westerners and the art market », again affirms the consensus-breaking specialist Tiérou.2 The Burkinabè Seydou Boro3, co-founder of the Salia Nï Seydou company and now a veritable figurehead of new African dance, says the same thing when he claims that, « Many dance companies in Africa are penniless and are tempted to let themselves be embarked upon any old adventure. We are fortunate enough not to be hard-up, which saves us from doing a lot of foolish things. » When you realise what huge difficulties African choreographers face in their home countries, it is easy to understand the majority’s tormented thirst for Western recognition. They have no financial backing, lack recognition, and have to deal with an often-critical lack of rehearsal and performance spaces…
Today, despite the evident fragility, a new African dance is striding ahead. Having shaken off its inferiority complex, it is constantly improving its technical mastery and inventiveness thanks to the dancers’ exceptional ability to incorporate what they glean elsewhere. Singular styles are emerging. Some subvert Western codes, others reinvent traditional movements. All try to synthesize their multiple influences in order to transcend them better. A strong social message, an almost vital necessity that is currently lacking in Western contemporary dance, animates their creations. These are often tuned into the continent’s realities– power lust, xenophobia, Aids, the loss of references, sexism, etc. European professionals are well aware of this and increasingly book African companies in their prestigious theatres and festivals. Similarly, choreographers from all over the world are going to Africa to seek new horizons.
Although dance, as Bernardo Montet puts it, is « a state of consciousness », in Africa it has always been and remains a social act. Given the profound upheavals the continent is experiencing and its subsequent loss of markers, dance is more than ever an answer to societies’ identity crises. It is also a way of expressing the very ambivalence of social change. Tiérou is right in saying that, « If its dance moves, Africa will move ». Choreographic creation is a factor of development in the sense that it encourages individuals to emancipate themselves, to shake off their fetters, and to define themselves as a new entity.
Today, all over Africa, autonomous initiatives are emerging. Dance schools are being set up in Senegal, East Africa, Burkina Faso, etc., and festivals and artistic collaborations are taking place. Last June, a group of Senegalese choreographers launched the first international « Kaay Fecc » dance festival in Dakar, offering a precious showcase for young companies from a number of countries. In December, Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro will hold « Dialogues de Corps »4 in Ouagadougou, an event offering an array of shows, workshops, conferences and seminars. In Kinshasa, Faustin Linyekula is setting up the Kabako studio. Similarly, the Kenyan Opiyo Okach is trying to set up a structure in his country.
A dynamic appears to have taken off, independent of the North’s impetus and influence, thereby testifying to the emergence of new cultural identities on the continent that are both deeply-rooted and have no boundaries. That is why choreographic creation is at present one of the most fascinating artistic domains in Africa, and one of the most controversial too. This dossier provides a glimpse of its diversity, difficulties, and the stakes involved. On the international stage, people will be speaking about Africa’s choreographers for a long while yet. As Faustin Linyekula puts it, « It’s for us to say who we are and what we want. »

1. In « Si la danse bouge, l’Afrique bougera », Le Monde, 9 April 2000.
2. In « La danse, une locomotive pour l’Afrique », Courrier de l’Unesco, Oct. 2000.
3. In « Salia Nï Seydou: ‘Avant tout, garder son âme' », Rézo International n°4, Winter 2000.
4. « Dialogues de corps », 10-22 Dec. 2001 in Ouagadougou.
///Article N° : 5255

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