African contemporary dance: towards a new South-North relationship?

By Ayoko Mensah

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After an initial flurry of activity, African contemporary dance now needs to stop and take stock. Since it was first conceived in Europe around ten years ago, this dance form younger than other forms of expression found on the African continent has been the subject of much debate. This is most likely because it crystallises the complexity and difficulty of South-North cultural relationships. Two recent international events, the Dialogues de Corps festival in Ouagadugou, and Africalia in Brussels, provided an opportunity for challenging preconceived ideas – as much on the part of African choreographers as institutions and cultural operators from the North.

« Are we encouraging the creation of a kind of contemporary African dance that is digestible for the European market? Are we disrupting things through a lack of knowledge, even if it is with the best of intentions? Are we creating new forms of dependence – on our money, our knowledge, our norms and tastes? »
These troublesome are courageously being posed by the Belgian director of the Danças na Cidade association, Mark Deputter. His text and the views of other African and European actors are published in a booklet (1) that constitutes a basis for reflection for industry events at the Africalia dance platform (2). Forty or so professionals (dancer-choreographers, theatre programmers, festival directors, academics, institutions, heads of various projects and associations) from all over the world (from all over Africa, the Indian Ocean, Northern, Central and Southern Europe, the United States and Latin America) took part in the two-day event. This exceptional forum had the merit of enabling players from the South and the North to meet, often for the first time. However, it also opened the way for a critical examination of North-South cultural aid, as if both sides were aware of the need to make a fresh start on a new footing.
Between dependence and neo-colonialism
Mark Deputter explains, « European interference has a long sad history in the most remote corners of the world, and in other cultures. It would not be unjustified to wonder if European artists’ and art organisations’ recent interest in distant lands is genuine, and if the desire to better understand the other (in order to better appreciate their art and culture) is real. It is often said that we shouldn’t leave globalisation up to politicians and businessmen. This argument would appear valid, however are we not exploiting the global market to our own ends? »
And what if cultural aid, under its humanitarian shell, were reproducing the errors of financial aid? In Brussels, dance professionals admitted that the risk exists and attempted to identify its reasons, in what was probably the most lucid manner witnessed within the industry. The main reason cited was African choreographers’ financial dependency on institutions from the North. Funds providers, festival organisers and western venues represent the main source of income for African artists. How can we ever expect egalitarian working relationships in this context?
The second issue is the paternalism of certain Northern institutions. « Too often, Europeans have a precise idea of what they want, even before they meet with their African colleagues, » explains a West African choreographer. « Instead of coming to listen they impose their expectations on our creators and organisers ». Many people admit that certain initiatives (especially French initiatives) have a neo-colonialist penchant. « In France, we haven’t yet left colonial history behind us, » continues the director. « Cultural aid hovers between guilty conscience and paternalism. Paris always decides what has to be done, what’s good or not good. We have to break the cycle. Dissidence isn’t easy but I prefer that to becoming part of the network. It seems to me that English speakers are more independent than French speakers ».
The third factor is the share of blame attributable to Africans. « The organisers too readily accept the subservient role that their European partners almost automatically give them, » explains an African choreographer. « First we have to learn to respect ourselves, which will be achieved by gaining experience and becoming more professional. » Another dancer continues, « We also need to rid ourselves of the obsession that our most important objective is to present our work in Europe. First we have to be artists in Africa, for our public, with our sponsors, with our colleagues. If we tour Europe later, that’s great but it shouldn’t be our first priority ».
Far from being unanimous, North-South aid for dance is at best ambiguous and at worst a mirror of the neo-colonial relationship. In a text published with that of Mark Deputter, Souleymane Koly, director of Ensemble Koteba, in Abidjan, comments, « North-South cultural exchange must necessarily bear the weight of the past and of received ideas. They [North-South cultural exchanges] are, obviously, tributary to the power relationships that dominate international relations these days. (…) Good will, honesty and hefty financial investments are not enough to guarantee the success and shared satisfaction of North-South initiatives ».
Thus, the consequences of special African programmes springing up in numerous European theatres and festivals are, for Mark Deputter, relatively negative. « (…) A special programme for Africa does not include, it excludes. It presents African art as a curiosity, as an aside to the normal programme », he writes. « The artists and their work are not considered in their own right but as representatives of something as abstract and vague as Africa (which often includes all the clichés). This prevents their artistic product from being appreciated with respect to other events on the programme ».
Reconciling differing logics
« Are we, as Europeans, prepared to listen without imposing? The question seems deceptively simple but there are a number of traps, even for people who try to be aware and to act with caution and responsibility ». Mark Deputter is the moderator for this industry event and is convinced of the need to rethink cultural aid. « By co-producing artists from other cultural contexts, we are necessarily torn between our ignorance of an artistic context whose complexity we misunderstand and the experience of our own market, our own public, our own context. (…) Who decides what quality is? Is true dialogue possible? Do we have the knowledge to say anything at all about performance in another culture? Is positive discrimination a good enough reason for supporting the work of artists from ethnic minorities or economically poor countries? Or does this necessarily lead to paternalism? »
The Africalia forum did not pretend to answer these questions in all their complexity. However, in posing them it underlined the divide between Southern artists and operators, and Northern institutions. It also emphasised profound differences in their logic and concerns. On the one hand, there are the African choreographers who are struggling to exist and continue to survive from day to day in their own countries, where the society is often devastated. On the other hand, there are the professionals, with their finance and good intentions, who have to define their approach according to their target market. « Many partnerships are still merely arranged marriages that correspond to our public’s expectations, » admits the director of the Europe du Nord theatre. « This is why we like to have control over the choice of artists who work together. In fact, we have taken their power away. We have to give it back to them, accept that what they produce might not correspond to our expectations. »
How can we reconcile such different contexts? Is this even possible? Or desirable? A positive sign on both sides is that the various actors are questioning themselves and are trying to formulate the foundation for a new kind of cooperation. Western institutions have to realise that they know nothing, or very little, about the cultural context of African dance forms. They have to stop imposing their views and learn to listen. In Souleymane Koly’s opinion, actors from the South need to organise themselves so as to have negotiating power with African authorities, in order to combat the « body drain » towards the West by creating local solutions adapted to African societies. In short, they need to « rely on themselves before soliciting the help of others ».
Of course, everyone knows how hard it will be to establish more balanced relationships as long as African contemporary dance is financed by Northern institutions exclusively. In the meantime, most of the Africalia participants recognised that there is a need for long-term partnerships that are more respectful of African cultures. Souleymane Koly continues, « We have to give those primarily concerned the voice and the initiative, and we have to make an effort to create relationships between the citizens, between non-governmental operators. »
« We will definitely not avoid all contradictions », adds Mark Deputter, « We will not solve all the problems (…) but I firmly believe that meticulously-prepared small-scale projects are capable of providing a very powerful alternative. »
The issue of networks
Networks have an essential role to play in this effort to create new forms of cooperation. This does not only mean North-North networks but also South-South networks. Burkina Faso’s Salia Ni Seydou dance company is well aware of this. By creating the first private West African contemporary dance festival in 2000, the company has become one of the driving forces in a network of African choreographers. Firstly by focusing the event on training young dancers from all over the continent and by developing a partnership with Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny’s centre for dance in parallel.
The first results of this collaboration were presented during the third edition of Dialogues de Corps, held in Ouagadougou in December. The piece created, entitled La Traversée du Sud brings together no less than 12 dancers from eight African countries. The choreography was prepared at the Toubab Dialaw Ecole des Sables (3) in Senegal and was finished during a creative residency (4) at the last Dialogues de Corps festival. This first real production provided a stunning finale for the festival and its Burkinabe audience. It is not perfect, admittedly, and would not have been possible without funding from the Belgian organisation, Africalia, however the performance is an undeniable sign that a network is being progressively set up for African contemporary dance. Furthermore, this project is the beginning of a partnership between Toubab Dialaw’s school and the future CDC (Centre for choreographic development) in Ouagadougou set up by Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro.
On a more global level, increasingly active networks are being set up for African cultural operators. For three years now, a work group set up by three independent bodies (5) has been implementing an « action plan for promoting decentralised cultural cooperation between the European Community and West Africa ». Concretely, the network now comprises 80 West African cultural operators from artists, to producers, publishers, festival organisers, dance company administrators, directors of cultural venues, journalists, curators, etc. Armed with such strong membership, the network is trying to promote a « sub-regional fund for organising cultural professionals and developing exchange » within ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).
Isabelle Bosman, an expert on the EDPCM (5) and member of the working group, reminded participants in the Africalia platform of the importance of supporting regional integration by creating and reinforcing existing networks. « It is vital to the development of the cultural sector. However, key events such as Masa, the Recontres chorégraphiques de Tananarive, etc. are not sufficient. It is by developing hundreds of initiatives of common interest that we will achieve regional integration in Africa. Today, the European Union is in favour of a decentralised approach to cultural cooperation that gets the private operators involved in their own development. However, they have to pass the hurdle of mobilisation in order to make their voices heard. They have to agree between themselves, start political lobbying, and force the institutions to take action without waiting for them to do so. Their projects would gain from being less competitive and more complementary in order to achieve this. » This is the case with the partnership between the Ecole des Sables and the Dialogues de Corps festival.
Admittedly, there is nothing easy about organising these networks. Starting with circulation difficulties on the African continent! However, we can only rejoice that they are burgeoning, both horizontally and vertically. Two dance initiatives for cultural cooperation between the North and the South provide proof of a new decentralised and innovative approach. The programme for long-term exchange, Dançar O Que E Nosso (Dance what is ours) (6) set up by the Portuguese association Danças na Cidade run by Mark Deputter, brings together dance companies from various Portuguese-speaking countries around the world. Shuttle 02 (6) is an ambitious cultural exchange programme between a number of operators in Denmark and South Africa. Shuttle 02 is also focusing on the long term.
In short, there is no end of initiatives. One of the issues over the next few years will be to try and coordinate them all (7). It is the creation of networks based on real partnerships between professionals that will lead the way for a new globalisation, the creation of international cultural relationships that are no longer projected in terms of aid and demand but rather in terms of knowledge-sharing, exchange and working together.

1. Booklet entitled Sur l’interculturalisme, Croisements, published by the IETM (Informal European Theatre Meeting), Brussels, March 2003.
2. Africalia is an association run by the Belgian federal ministry for cooperation. For the full programme of initiatives, consult the Africalia website on For information contact [email protected]
3. Directed by choreographers Germaine Acogny (Senegal), Koffi Koko (Benin), Laurence Levasseur and Anne-Marie Renaud (France).
4. Directed by choreographers Salia Sanou, Seydou Boro and Osseini Sako (Burkina Faso).
5. The European Center for Development Policy Managment (ECPDM), whose head office is in Holland; the Ivoirian NGO Droit à la Culture; and the Burkinabe association, Odas Africa.
6. For more information on these projects see the booklet, Sur l’interculturalisme, Croisements, reference details above.
7. Africalia also intends to play a role at this level by organising a series of industry meetings on this issue. For more information, consult
///Article N° : 5688


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