« An almost impossible dream »: revisiting Opiyo Okach’s African tour »

By Ayoko Mensah

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How many African contemporary choreographers have the opportunity to tour with their creations around their own continent? Only a tiny handful. Last September, the Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okach performed his solo ‘Dilo’ in five West African countries. The experience was incredible for both the artist and local audiences. It also provided an opportunity for intense communication with dancers met during the trip.

It was a long tour – seven cities in five countries (Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Guinea) – over one month and ten days. A performance was given at the French cultural centre in each city. The tour was organised and financed by the Afaa (French association for artistic aid, which answers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and represents one of the few (if not only) networks currently capable of distributing contemporary dance in Africa under relatively good technical conditions. There are very few places available through the Afaa, which generally funds an average of five creations a year chosen by the Afaa and directors of the French cultural centres.
2003 was Opiyo Okach’s year. Last May, his latest creation, ‘Abila’, toured French cultural centres in East Africa. Several months later, in September, he performed his solo, ‘Dilo’ (a short abstract minimalist piece for which an outline was first sketched in 1997) in the West.
An atypical piece
‘Dilo’is a strange choreography. It is a piece that travels along sandy paths into a deep interior place, while also being irreducibly escapist.
‘Dilo’ is divination. At the origin of this creation there is a rock – but not just any rock. It is the « Kit Jajuok ». For the Luo, who live on the banks of Lake Victoria (Kenya), where Opiyo Okach is from, this rock constitutes « a central mythological edifice ». It acts both as a temple and a medium for the soothsayer, the Jajouk, a « specialist in intuitive perception, the study of causes, remedies, and predicting social or personal events. »
Since 1997, Okach has been researching stone mythology belonging to the traditionally nomadic peoples around the Nil and its source, Lake Victoria. These people include the Massai, Samburu, Luo, Turkana, Gabra, etc. ‘Dilo’ is part of an ensemble of three pieces entitled « Rituals Of The Rock » that was co-produced in 2000 by Régine Chopinot’s Ballet Atlantique and the Montpellier centre for choreography. Since the first version was performed six years ago, Opiyo Okach has continued to evolve and refine his solo until it has become what it is today – a sort of extremely sober framework that lets us glimpse the infinity of dance.
The piece opens in darkness and silence. At the back of the stage we can just make out a person kneeling on the floor with their head bent to the ground. A ray of light touches the outlined back. The shape slowly begins to move, then stands and stretches towards the sky. It begins to move in absolute silence. For a second its hands join, swaying as if they had been hit by a powerful wave. Then it starts walking again. Each supple, precise movement is in powerful relief. Wearing simple cotton pants, the man approaches the audience and – still in silence – scrutinises it for a moment. He is a lone man, without a trace of artifice.
Suddenly, his body launches into movement. He seems to enter into a wide spiral, an undulating sigh into which he pours himself. His flesh becomes clay. His legs, chest, arms, shoulders and neck trace curved lines that fade into the space. He wrings his hands once more, clasping them for a fraction of a second as if in esoteric prayer.
In its body movements, as with its entire structure, ‘Dilo’ oozes an unsettling asceticism. The piece is largely performed in silence, except for two passages, the first is taken from a chant used in Massai initiation rites; the second, which is even more enigmatic, is a recording of a woman in an Ethiopian village who still stone grinds her grain in the traditional manner.
How will this slow, fluid dance, which is apparently so different from other West African movement, be received? When he started out on the tour (with a hint of apprehension) Opiyo Okach was aware that he was offering a totally atypical piece to West African audiences. This was an essentially silent solo that had no spectacular effects. At a time when artistic exchange between West and East Africans – in Africa – is still relatively rare, this tour is particular interesting, from several points of view.
Adapting to the venue and the audience
Will the public come? How will people react? In Lagos, the first capital city to host ‘Dilo’, these questions remained unanswered. In Nigeria, dance is strongly traditional, lively, varied and celebrated. The general public can identify with it and believes in it. However, it is quite a different story for what has come to be termed « African contemporary dance ». In this giant country, as is the case pretty much all over the continent these days, the recent trend in choreographic creation is definitely growing but this dance form is still marginal. Only a small group, mostly composed of expatriates, intellectuals and African artists, has access to and is interested it. Okach is no different. However, he has succeeded in reaching a new audience and has opened a new window, particularly for Nigerian dancers.
During the two weeks prior to the performance, the choreographer was invited to hold a workshop for young Nigerian dancers at the French cultural centre in Logos. Far from the energetic dances in their repertoires, Okach proposed a different technical base related to improvisation. « Nigerian dancers are full of energy. They work a lot on exteriorising, » he explains, « I encourage them to think about the movement, about where it is born, about its progression. The movement in itself doesn’t interest me. What I’m looking for is a whole truth at a given moment in time. »
These days, Opiyo Okach’s work mainly focuses on improvisation and spontaneous composition. Not being rigid; being open to what happens in a given instant; seeking harmony between the dance, the place and the audience are a few of his credo. ‘Dilo’ is the very expression of this. While the general outline of the solo is set, Okach adapts the piece to each venue and each audience. « My dancing isn’t exactly the same when I’m performing for an audience that has never seen any contemporary dance as when the theatre is full of dancers, » he explains, « I create a different relationship with each audience – I take it into account. »
As a result, ‘Dilo’ produces some very fascinating alchemy whereby the venue, the moment, the lighting (by French lighting technician, Christophe Barnier) and the audience become elements of the piece in their own right. Firstly, the place: this is essential because there is no other decor. Okach performs on an empty stage. His only requirement is a wall at the back of the stage to perform against. This is one of the many images of the close relationship he has with the space.
Because the theatres in several of the French cultural centres do not have a roof, ‘Dilo’ was in tune with the exterior. This is probably one of the most striking experiences of this tour. Okach not only integrates the stage and his audience (which he needs to feel close to) but he also incorporates the hum of the surrounding city – the trees stretching above the theatre, the rising moon. Through the silence, lack of decor and simplicity of his movements, these elements exist in their own right and he plays with them.
The immediate relationship between the performance and the outside world can at times go so far as to sublimate the show, as was the case at the Saint-Louis French cultural centre in Senegal. Because it was located quite close to a mosque, religious chants could be heard as the performance began. Rather than ignoring them, Okach adapted his movements imperceptibly to their haunting rhythm. Thus, a unique dialogue was established between the man, the temporal space and the audience. This magical osmosis was remarkable in its frailty. Later, Okach confessed that he was carried away by the spirituality of the chanting, even though he was not Muslim. Many of the spectators were enthralled and were deeply moved by their awareness of a rare moment in which the dance had turned towards the infinite.
New memory
Okach made a name for himself internationally by winning (with Congolese choreographer, Faustin Linyekul and German-Ethiopian choreographer, Affrah Tanenberger) the third inter-African prize for choreography in Luanda (Angola) in 1998. Two years previously, the three choreographers had created Kenya’s first contemporary dance company, Gaarà (named after the small bells used in traditional Luo music). Okach has always worked on his traditional cultural heritage. Being aware that traditional culture is progressively dieing (there are said to be very few traditional dances remaining in Luo areas), he is gathering together a record of dances, myths and rituals like that of the divine rock that inspired ‘Dilo’. His intention is not to use them as they are but use them as « choreographic material ».
« When I’m in Kenya I start each afternoon by working on traditional music and dance, » he explains, « Then I move onto improvisation. I try to find a movement that doesn’t exist but that suddenly appears. This movement is born out of traditional dance but moves onto somewhere else. I try to find a whole truth for myself. I was born in Kenya, I have lived here but my experience is not restricted to this country. It is far wider, more universal than that. How do I artistically create an identity that corresponds to this reality? This guides the relationship between my work and the Kenyan heritage. »
Nothing could be clearer: for Okach there is no border between traditional and contemporary dance. In fact, it is his work focussing on his cultural roots that makes him modern. He finds controversy about the term « African contemporary dance », and the confusion that his creates, frustrating. « Dancers should understand that contemporary dance is not a style but rather an artistic approach concerning research and creation. Modernity is in the here and now, » he summarises, « We experience a number of realities in Africa. Our identities are evolving constantly. »
Through his choreographies, Okach seeks to build a memory for these new identities – that of today’s Africa, and that of the Africa of tomorrow. He reinvents rituals and customs at the crossroads of several continents. He is conscious of the multiple dimensions of his work. « In my choreographic writing, I readily use two tools of spontaneous composition – ‘surface painting’ and ‘shifting centre’. The first sees the body as a paintbrush that draws paintings in space. The second consists in displacing the centre in space. This creates a certain poetry of movement, a fluidity that is also a change in perception. There is not a single centre, but rather many centres, multiple points of view. This is also a political vision. I am fighting against a singular conception of space, of dance, of what a show should be. »
Opiyo Okach’s dance is about poetry and politics, however it is also spiritual, in the sense that it replaces man in a temporal space that overwhelms him. Present, past and future; visible and invisible; the profane and the sacred – in ‘Dilo’ the dancer-choreographer succeeds in making these multiple dimensions co-exist. He is also aware of the significance of their interpenetration, as when he starts dancing up against the wall, turned in onto himself while his enormous, disturbing shadow, which is projected by a low-angle green light, takes on ghostly forms.
Furthermore, polysemy is central to the piece. Is the legendary rock that inspired the piece – the « Kit Jajouk » – not traditionally (according to Okach) « a system of duality and ambivalence that changes the polarities according to the context (…), alternatively associated with the great god, the wild sorcerers, the healers, the soothsayers or the ancestral spirits belonging to a tribe or individual. »
Widening the audience
In each town on the tour (Lagos, Lomé, Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Dakar, Saint-Louis and Conakry), ‘Dilo’ reached out to, surprised and challenged the audience. Discussions were held after several performances. Contemporary dance is still largely unknown in Africa but the public proved to be open and curious. The audiences were capable of recognising the artistic worth of this intimate, minimalist piece, which is a far cry from usual recreational shows. « I didn’t know how African audiences would receive my solo », recalls Okach, « but I discovered that they are surprisingly sophisticated, despite not being familiar with contemporary dance. For me, that was a very positive aspect of the tour. »
The show’s success fells a strong blow to preconceived ideas. Africa is not closed to abstract and slow works, as long as they born of a genuine artistic approach, what Okach called his « whole truth ». Too often still, young African dancers and choreographers borrow concepts and movements they have not taken the time to make their own. Therefore, the pieces give an impression of pretentiousness, which does not go unnoticed by the audiences.
In each town, Okach talked to dancers at some length. Everywhere he encountered the same thirst to meet, to communicate, to learn. In Conarky (Guinea), the visit by the winner of the Rencontres chorégraphiques interafricaines brought hope. « We work by ourselves, under very difficult conditions, » says Aicha Dine Magasouba, the choreographer and director of one of the few local contemporary dance companies, Cie Nyatiri. « Having Opiyo Okach’s opinion of our work is vital. All that I hope is that he can come back to Guinea for some training sessions. »
Dancers in Lagos were lucky enough to benefit from a 10-day training session at the French cultural centre. However, in every town there was very clear demand, proving just how much varied training is important to African artists.
So, how can the most benefit be gained from this type of tour? At a time when French cultural funding in Africa is being reduced, it would seem that there is a need to think about how to optimise on the tours and set up alternative circuits.
At the end of the tour Opiyo Okach was very conscious of having lived what is still an almost impossible dream for the majority of African choreographers – that is, to perform his creation in several countries across Africa, under professional conditions. He has only one slight regret that he did not share his work with more people – the general public and young people in particular. Dance is the poetry of everyday life, as Okach likes to say. Why not imagine improvisations in schools and public places? To his mind, it is vital that the audience for contemporary dance be widened in Africa.

NB: The author would like to thank the Afaa and the regional office in Dakar for enabling her to follow Opiyo Okach’s tour. OPIYO OKACH
Born in Asembo, in Western Kenya, in 1962, Opiyo Okach first trained in physician theatre and mime at the London Desmolase Jones School of Mime and Physician theatre. He moved into dance when he returned to Nairobi in 1995. He co-founded Kenya’s first contemporary dance company, Gaara a year later. Gaara was impressive from its first creation, ‘Cleansing’, winning Third prize at the inter-African choreography contest in 1998. Today, Opiyo Okach shares his time between France and Kenya. He is the director of the dance department of the new Godown interdisciplinary arts centre in Nairobi. Each year he organises training sessions. Since receiving the SACD2003 prize for young choreographers, he has gone on to create a new solo called ‘No Man’s Gone Now’, which is interpreted by Julyen Hamilton, a leading European improviser. ///Article N° : 5714

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