African dance doesn’t have anything to prove

Interview with Kettly Noël, by Ayoko Mensah

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The 33-year-old Haitian dancer and choreographer Kettly Noël moved to Bamako in 1999. Her first creation, presented at the Maison des Cultures du Monde in Paris in 1996, was highly appreciated. Brought up in the midst of voodoo culture, in it she proposed a stupefying descent into her island’s animist universe. After having set up a contemporary dance company in Cotonou, Kettly Noël has set up a new formation in the Malian capital. On the occasion of her first show performed during the Festival du Théâtre des Réalités last November, she discussed her experience with us.

How did you start to dance back in Haiti?
I always danced as a child in the neighbourhood groups, at school. After graduating from high school, I joined a dance company. Then I learnt more about traditional Haitian dance from Viviane Gauthier. She explained the symbolism of our dances to me, and how their movements refer back to Africa, express our ties with the motherland.
You don’t have any formal dance training. Does that give you a complex as a choreographer?
I created « Dans la cour » in 1996 in response to an impulse. I wanted to say something about voodoo but, as I had no training, I didn’t know what results this would produce. I did what I had in my head, without worrying about the technique, how the space was occupied, etc. Today, I am conscious of the weaknesses of this first show. Yet people liked it a lot. Because we were real, I think. Why should you absolutely have to go via a French choreographer to produce contemporary dance? Can’t we develop our own universe out of our own reality? If we are true, we will always manage to move others. Art is universal. To my mind, not having had formal training is not what matters most. What is essential is to find how to express what we want to say.
How does your work with young Beninese and now Malian dancers help you in this pursuit?
These training workshops bring me an enormous amount. In five years, they have enabled me to develop my work, to make it exist. It is not easy to work with dancers from a folkloric tradition, but it is extremely enriching. I try to encourage them to enrich their tradition, to create their own language, to reflect what they live, their contemporaneousness. Not all of them understand my approach. For example, one dancer from the Malian National Ballet who came to one of my workshops and exclaimed: « This is a madman’s dance. I don’t understand a thing« . Or the leader of a traditional troupe who said to me: « I am not resistant to contemporary dance, but it comes from over there, it doesn’t affect me« . I agree that highly intellectual contemporary dance doesn’t really move African dancers. They don’t feel concerned by this approach. However, if they can work from their reality to express it, to show it in a favourable light, to show its wealth, that is completely different.
How do you work with these dancers?
First of all, the dancers exchange, teach each other the movements of their traditional dances. It is not about casting off what they have. This is very important baggage! But I then tell them to forget all of that and to let their bodies, their bodies’memory speak. We work a lot on attitudes, the behaviour observed in our lives and which has marked us, which we still remember. I like to start from a person’s experience to bring the dance into being. It might be an attitude, a history, or even a song… What is important is to start with what we have. I also work a lot on silence. There are a lot of things left unsaid in Africa, a lot of meaningful silences.
What difficulties do you meet in these workshops?
The first hurdle that I come up against is a certain reluctance to change. Why change, the dancers ask me. They don’t feel the need to. But that changes once you awaken their curiosity by starting out from things they know how to do. My first contacts with the Beninese were not easy. I am Haitian. My roots are in Benin. In Cotonou, I get the impression I am back in Haiti. That was a shock! As I had come from France, the dancers were expecting a lot from me in material terms. At first, they only saw me as a ticket to France. It took a lot of discussion to break down the illusions. Given the socio-economic difficulties they face, many want to leave their country. But they first of all have to know what they can offer.
Are there similarities between Beninese and Haitian dance?
The very origin of Haitian dance is Beninese. I knew so before going to Benin and I was able to confirm this. It is the same root. Even though in Haiti our dance is more nostalgic, slower, whereas the traditional Beninese dances are very dynamic, violent even. They are very close to the earth. Here, in Mali, the traditional dances are more aerial. It’s the Sahel. It can be excessively hot. The dancers attempt to get air…
What do you make of the North’s growing interest in contemporary African dance?
We have to be careful not to let ourselves get shut in a ghetto, in a sort of new exoticism. But we have to take advantage of this enthusiasm so that our form of expression gains the recognition and professional status it deserves. I think it is a real pity that a lot of African choreographers don’t dare to get their feet wet, to create as they want to, even if it means making mistakes. In any case, we have to make mistakes. African dance doesn’t have anything to prove. You can’t improve a people’s culture. Behind the dance, there’s a whole battle to fight for the recognition of our values, without being ghettoised.
How did you work on your last creation?
« Kana Kasi » means « don’t cry » in one Cameroonian language. We worked just over two months on this creation. That’s not at all long… We explored the theme of pain, whilst trying not to limit ourselves to it. That gave quite tormented dance in which each person’s body’s memory is expressed… I also work on matter a lot. In « Kana Kasi », the kaolin circle marks the territory, to show the ancestors, the spirits, that we haven’t forgotten them. It is important to me. I had a voodoo upbringing. My dance goes via the earth.
Can the companies that you have set up survive once you have gone?
My first objective was to set up a contemporary dance structure in the country I was living in. I have now left Benin, but the company still exists. I regularly go to Cotonou to give workshops. Which doesn’t stop the dancers from creating without me. My aim isn’t only to set up dance companies, but that dance gains widespread acceptance as a creative form. That is to say, that it be recognized as real professional work. I hope to plant seeds that will end up blooming whether I am there or not.

///Article N° : 5575


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