The issue of transmission has been much pondered in the world of African contemporary dance.
MUDRA Africa, the first pan-African performing arts school was opened in Dakar in 1977 under the direction of Germaine Acogny, thus constituting the first step in Léopold Sédar Senghor’s move « towards the creation of a new, Negro-African dance felt and tasted – by all people from all civilisations ».
Twenty years later, once again thanks to Germaine’s Acogny’s boundless energy, the school, which was closed in 1985, rose from the ashes to become the École des sables in Toubab Dialaw (see article in Africultures, issue 42).
It has taken over twenty years for new initiatives by young artists to emerge around the continent, from Ouagadougou to Kinshasa or Nairobi. The younger generation is well versed in the techniques of their elders but is fed by a desire for a new form of transmission …
For dancers such as Salia Sanou, Opiyo Okach and Faustin Linyekula, keen to carry out new local projects, transmission became a necessity, given the lack of structural support and a total absence of contemporary dance trends.
One of his uncles had warned, « Once burnt, twice shy ». And yet, Faustin Linyekula has jumped back into the fire and has been working for over a year now at Studios Kabako (a venue dedicated to research and knowledge-sharing) on a long-term project focussing on « the self on stage » how to define a being that moves and breathes in relation to other beings watching it. He aims to use improvisation, with an organic technical base, to provide the necessary tools for creation in the hope of developing a very real choreographic presence in Kinshasa within five years. The young choreographer is motivated by his belief that Africa has an undeniable wealth of technical knowledge but is sorely lacking in dancers and artists capable of revitalising the mastered techniques and subsequently questioning and extending the choreographer’s discourse.
This is a concern common to the entire new generation.
The « transmitters » are first and foremost artists …
According to Salia Sanou, the two notions are complementary « For me, transmission is the perpetuation of an idea, the continuation of a certain vision, a vision which becomes both more personal and collective over time. It is essential that the artist communicate by creating, by returning that which they have received and assimilated ». He continues, « Artists who open the way towards creation ». It is the transmission of « a state of being, a state of body open to creativity ». For Congolese dancer, Chrysogone Diangouaya, it is an « inner energy, the moment of exteriorising the birth of dance ».
Analysing movement takes precedence over the symbolism of that movement. No one movement is more important than any other. What matters is what is done with it. Faustin’s first job in Kinshasa was « to teach the dancers to look around them, to appropriate the here and now ».
Opiyo Okach has a background in theatre and mime and has also developed a long-term training programme in Nairobi as part of the Génération 2001 project. Moving away from technique, the programme is aimed at going beyond the « architectural level within dance in order to reach the inner level ». It seeks to question the sources of movement, the intention and articulation between the body and mind, which raises the question of which is subject and what ground should be explored.
The young choreographers have moved away from academic classes. What they are setting up is first and foremost a process of knowledge sharing and exploration, or as summarised by Chrysogone, « learning through teaching ». Salia’s philosophy is entirely based on friction, confrontation and constant re-evaluation, « The day I can say that I’ve found what I’m looking for, I’ll be able to close the door on my career as an artist ».
In Europe and the United States, this kind of attitude is not always understood. Opiyo therefore often has problems trying to offer real workshops. « The dancers don’t coming to explore their dancing. They want classes in which they can learn specific movements and series of African steps to extend their vocabulary. This misunderstanding arises from a skewed view of African dance. Furthermore, numerous European dance schools also uphold this view. For many dancers, African dance classes mean percussions, learning numerous steps, lots of energy and a healthy state of fatigue … In fact, dancers who are genuinely interested in how to compose and reflect on movement very rarely come to our workshops, simply because of African etiquette! We – and the establishments that invite us therefore have to change this idea of African dance by showing that we work on areas that are specific to each individual and that constitute an art form in themselves ».
Faustin’s point of view on this matter is radical. « I’m only interested in teaching in the West if my Africanity is put aside. I’m not transmitting African dance, I’m transmitting my personal thoughts on interpretation ».
This is in fact at the heart of the matter do these artists who feed off numerous influences and who develop a personal approach create African dance? What kind of relationship do they have with the traditional dances of their country?
In a country where the main occupation is survival, where material poverty is constantly present, Faustin is fairly clear about the traditional cultural baggage. « For me, the durability of the traditional dances isn’t a problem. One day they will die just like everything else. What’s important now is to give the dancers and the public alike a piece of the dream the people here have shed enough tears, we have to stem the flow of time and open other windows onto the world ».
Some find this heritage a burden, for others it is a source of spiritual wealth.
Opiyo has focussed on ritual, rather than traditional dance forms, as a source of specificity for the body. This exploration provides the nerve centre for many of his choreographies, from « Rituals of the Rock » to « Abila ». He explains, « I needed to find within myself something different from everything I had learned elsewhere, and I needed to explore this singularity, especially in a city like Nairobi that has a complex and difficult relationship with tradition ».
Transmission is open to creation, is shared and questioned. It is above all a means for African artists to step outside their isolation, to participate in exchanges and provide points of reference to better situate themselves at the centre of the world. As Salia explains, « Over the past eight years, we’ve participated in exchanges with Western choreographers and African dancers, and this has proved extremely constructive. Now the training and creative establishments need to meet with choreographers and dancers from different African countries. Africa has to listen to what she has to say ».
Thanks go to: Agathe Poupeney.
The content of this article was gathered during the « Afriques : de la tradition à la modernité » professional workshop organised in June 2002 by the Centre national de la danse, with Elsa Wolliaston and Chrysogone Diangouaya, Flora Théfaine and Patrick Acogny, Salia Sanou and Opiyo Okach, Germaine Acogny and Sophiatou Kossoko.///Article N° : 5621