It was not so long ago that the major national ballets were all people knew of African dance around the world. On stage, artists were expected to make audiences laugh or smile. From the traditional ethnic dances that are generally related to collective festivities, to contemporary choreographic pieces, the role of humour and laughter has evolved significantly. Three choreographers – Koffi Kôkô, one of the major figures of African dance, Faustin Linykuela, and Julie Dossavi, two young talents, discuss their relation to these registers.
Initiated into southern Benin’s Fon dances at a very early age, Koffi Kôkô later received classic and contemporary dance training in France. Out of this syncretism, one of Africa’s most original choreographic styles was born. After directing the Benin national ballet, Kôkô set up the Carmen Kôkô company with the Spanish flamenco dancer Maricarmen Garcia in 1994.
Your latest solo pieces, Passage and D’un rive à l’autre, are very serious and poignant. Why is there so little humour in African choreography today?
Most themes in my work are effectively not very funny. I don’t express myself through dance to cheer people up. Audiences tend to find my shows hard-hitting. They don’t expect that when they come to see African dance. I don’t do it on purpose: there is a kind of internal aggression when I express myself. I think it depends on the period in one’s life, the revolutions experienced.
It is also very difficult to make people laugh. One needs a certain distance from one’s own work. It’s a question of maturity. Perhaps we aren’t there yet? Several phases have to be gone through in dance before finding the route to humour.
Yet in Africa, traditional dances are often related to festivities. Joy, laughter, and even mockery and the grotesque are all a part of it…
When people get together and are free to express themselves, I think that they tend to want to laugh rather than cry. In Benin, animist religion is a festivity, initiations and ceremonies alike. Spirituality is not cut off from daily life, it is a part of it. In my village, Ouidah, the divinities intervene as characters, with their different traits. Even in the sacred space, they can dance and mimic daily scenes that make everybody laugh. A god might hide an object, whilst others come and discreetly steal it, or they might imitate sexual intercourse in front of everybody. Everybody finds it funny, including the children… We know how to dance life. Sometimes we create satirical songs about political or social events in the country. When people manage to laugh about a serious subject, it means that they have assimilated and absorbed it.
Is laughter a means of coming together, of feeling stronger?
Laughter is an exchange of energy. In these festivities, there is such an exchange of energy that people manage to forget themselves and to give the pure force they have within them. Everybody carries the ceremony. Laughter is vital for us. It preserves human nature. Laughing at ourselves, sometimes through others, is always positive.
The solo Passage is a homage to the Voodoo gods, but you barely touch on this festive dimension.
I didn’t want to create something exotic, like a divining ceremony on stage. I tried to transpose this universe I grew up in. It’s more a homage to the spiritual life I lead. In all my shows there are moments when the audience bursts out laughing though. I have always tried to achieve this, but what I like, surprisingly, is that the laughter never comes where I expected it to. When it occurs in the same place several times, I then work on these sequences.
What kind of moments make the public laugh?
In the show D’une rive à l’autre, which is about slavery, the audience was very serious. But that didn’t stop people laughing when the slave, who is torn between two masters’ contradictory orders, turns his head from side to side, not knowing which saint to implore. I wasn’t expecting this reaction. It made me discover a certain derision in my dance. Terre rougeâtre, the latest duo I created with the flamenco dancer Maricarmen Garcia, represents the meeting between two cultures, Spain and Africa, incarnated by a man and a woman. The cultures clash, blend, reject one another, but always remain true to themselves. In the hotchpotch, there are some racy moments which people may well identify with, as in all stories between men and women… (laughter). In the duo Ayélé, there is also a lot of humour although little is said. This piece relates the story of an elderly couple who dream of dancing eternally. Indeed, they never stop dancing, even though their bodies grow gradually more and more tired, and seize up. This duo makes my partner and me want to laugh at ourselves as we dance on stage… Even though we force ourselves to stay serious, we communicate the humour between us to the audience.
Do you ever change your choreographies in relation to these passages?
I did quite unexpectedly in Hommage à Nijinsky. I begin this solo by dancing the postures of the three monkeys in oriental philosophy. For one of them, I have a ball in my mouth. One day when I was performing in Germany, I dropped the ball. I exclaimed « Sheiße » out loud! The audience burst out laughing, of course! Afterwards, I decided to keep this incident, to integrate it into my dance as it really amazed me. Usually when this kind of incident happens, you act as if nothing was wrong. I know how to behave on stage, and moreover, I don’t speak a word of German. My reaction totally amazed me. I decided that this incident ought to become part of the show.
Laughter and derision often work through language. Do you think the body can have the same degree of expressivity as words?
When you know how to use the body, it can have the same force as language. When the body speaks correctly, it expresses what words cannot say without going astray. It can transmit the secrets within us: all the archaic corporal memory we have forgotten. My work focuses on this exploration. There is a theatrical dimension in my work. Without texts.
Can we not find this archaic memory of the body through laughter? Like dance, does it not lessen the distance that comes from all intellectualization?
The roots of dance, like laughter, go back to the childhood of humanity. Both are born out of impulses we do not control. Both phenomena are beyond us. When we let the archaic memory of the body express itself, we can travel very far back. That’s what I worked on in D’une rive à l’autre. For this piece, I didn’t just carry out intellectual research on slavery, but also entered a certain state to achieve this corporal memorization, to manage to express the suffering of the slaves.
When you make people laugh, do you still feel tied to the ‘good nigger’ colonial stereotype, to the ‘Yes Massa’ smile?
African dancers became aware of this image some thirty years ago. It affected us particularly as the joyfulness of dance in Africa became somewhat hackneyed in the national ballets. It didn’t suffice for the artists to dance, they also had to grin and make people laugh. A lot of those expressions were overdone. Today things have changed. Which doesn’t mean we are not happy inside when we dance. But on stage, I don’t think we should overdo the humour, otherwise it loses its force.
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