Aware of just how vital training is for the evolution of contemporary African dance, in 1997 the Senegalese dancer-choreographer Germaine Acogny set up a dance school in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal. This was quite a gamble given the caution of the sponsors, the target public’s lack of means (young African dancers), and the authorities’ disinterest. Four years on, it has nonetheless become an indisputable success. « L’Ecole des sables » has become a very dynamic training and choreographic creation centre. And if that didn’t suffice, it has also given rise to the pan-African dance company, Jant-Bi.
Germaine Acogny fell in love with Toubab Dialaw, a fishing village on the « Petit Côte » about fifty kilometres south of Dakar where she decided to build her « Centre international de danses traditionnelles et contemporaines africains » Jant-Bi (« the sun » in Wolof). Thanks to its astonishing « Sobo Bade » arts centre set up by the Haitian poet-playwright Gérard Ghenet, the village already had a reputation for cultural dynamism.
Today still, many people think of Mudra Afrique, Maurice Béjart’s first pan-African dance school set up in Dakar in 1977, when they hear Germaine Acogny’s name. The choreographer ran the school for five years, forming a whole generation of dancers who are now recognized professionals, including Irène Tassembédo (Burkina), Longa Fo (Congo), and Ass Ayigah (Togo).
When Mudra Afrique was forced to close in 1983 through lack of funding, Germaine Acogny left Dakar to perform her own creations and to run workshops all over the world. But she finally returned to Senegal at the beginning of the Nineties with the intention of opening a new dance school. « Dance mainly suffers from two things in Africa: lack of means and the still widely held notion that it’s an art you cannot teach », she likes to recall.
In the space of a just few years, Toubab Dialaw has proved itself to be a new international dance crossroads in Africa. At the origin of this success were three three-month-long workshops for young professional African dancers run by the big names of African and Western dance.
Right from the start, Germaine Acogny and her husband Helmut Vogt, the school’s administrative director, wanted to invite dancers from different African countries to these sessions. The first workshop was held in spring 1998. Thirty dancers, most of whom came from Senegal, and from Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Congo-Brazzaville too, were involved, chosen by Germaine Acogny either at workshops held in the country, or on application. Maurice Béjart’s former collaborator invited three choreographers to run the first edition’s workshops with her, namely Abdou Mama Diouf, master of traditional Senegalese dance, Susanne Linke, a major figure of contemporary German dance, and her collaborator Avi Kaiser, a choreographer originally from Israel.
The Ecole des sables continues the Mudra tradition both in its teaching of technique, developed here by Germaine Acogny (« a blend of West African traditions and Western classical and modern dance »), and its desire to open its doors to dancers from different horizons. Unlike Mudra, however, the basis of the teaching here remains traditional dance. « These ethnic forms constitute our roots. But African dancers must understand that other techniques can enrich their expression, just as Western choreographers take inspiration from our dance and music. It is important to give youngsters the broadest foundations possible so that they can explore the techniques’ complementarity. The African continent’s choreographic creativity needs this indispensable artistic and human openness to blossom », insists the woman who would like to see dance taught in Africa’s schools.
In 1998, the centre didn’t have the funds to finish its buildings, which did not stop the classes from taking place. The schedule was extremely intensive seven hours’ dance a day, six days a week. In the morning, classes were held in a huge sandy yard, in the afternoon, on the site of the future centre a vast plot on a cliff by a baobab forest. This was what gave the school its nickname, « L’Ecole des sables » (« The sand school »). Working conditions were sometimes arduous (sand, sun, and wind), but gave the classes a singular inspiration and energy. Percussionists who had also come to perfect their training under the direction of Arona Ndiaye, son of the legendary master sabar drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose and third pillar of the « Jant-Bi » association, provided the music.
Thanks to the renewed confidence of the workshop’s partners UNESCO, the Goethe Institute in Dakar, the Prince Claus Foundation, Afrique en Créations, the Psic (European Union local fund) 22 dancers from 12 African countries came to the school in 1999. This time, trainees were asked to make a financial contribution and were encouraged to look for a sponsor as, according to the organisers, « proof of their motivation ».
Completely won over by Toubab Dialaw and the energy of the participants, choreographer Suzanne Linke returned and set about creating a piece with eight dancers that combined German dance-theatre and African dance. At the end of the workshop a few months later, the Toubab Dialaw centre’s new company, Jant-Bi, performed « Le Coq est mort » in Dakar. Thanks to Suzanne Linke’s name, the piece then toured Europe and the States for two years. It was an extraordinarily rich experience for the young Jant-Bi dancers.
After one year off, the latest workshop held from March to June 2001 consecrated the success of the Ecole des sables. 29 dancers from 16 countries (ranging from Cape Verde to Madagascar to Namibia) followed top quality workshops taught by masters of traditional dance and major international choreographers, including Robyn Orlin (South Africa), Bernardo Montet (France), Flora Théfaine (Togo/France), Sophiatout Kossoko (Benin/France), and, of course, Germaine Acogny. The Jant-Bi Company has, for its part, started working on a new piece on the theme of the Rwandan genocide with the Japanese choreographer, Kota Yamasaki An international dance school, a forum of exchange and encounters, and a laboratory of choreographic experimentation all in one, Toubab Dialaw has proved itself to be one of the sites where tomorrow’s contemporary dance is being invented.
Artistic director of the Rencontres de la création chorégraphique africaine from 1997 to 2000, Germaine Acogny has now chosen to concentrate all her energies on developing Toubab Dialaw. At the same time, she is setting up an exchange network between Africa’s different national dance schools. Like her, more and more choreographers, conscious of the need to develop dance schools in Africa, are trying to set up structures. This is the case of Salia Sanou and Seydo Boro from Burkina Faso, who are behind the project to set up a choreographic development centre in Ouagadougou. « La Termitière » is due to move into the current Théâtre populaire as soon as it has been entirely renovated. The Burkinabè Ministry of Arts and Culture will give the Salia Nï Seydou Company a mandate to run this state institution. The Toubab Dialaw « Ecole des sables » and « La Termitière » plan to work together, the former focusing more on training, the latter on creation. The setting up of this kind of work and training centre network is indispensable for the autonomy of African choreographic creation. But for the time being, no official federative structure is envisaged.
Finally, it must be pointed out that there is an equally urgent need to train people to produce and run dance companies. « There are very few competent producers in Africa. It’s a relatively new profession here. Artist thus find themselves having to become producers when they are absolutely not trained for the job », pointed out the Burkinabè Vincent Koala, director of Odas Africa, during the « Territoires de la création » symposium held in Lille in September 2000. The future of contemporary African dance depends on the development of such artistic, technical, and administrative training.
Jant-Bi Association (Centre international de danses traditionnelles et contemporaines africaines de Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, Ecole des Sables) Information in Dakar: BP 2226 Dakar-Ponty Senegal Tel.: (221) 836 36 19/821 0109 Fax: (221) 836 36 19:822 90 95 E-mail: [email protected] – In France: 24 rue Léonce Castelbou 31000 Toulouse Tel.: (33) 5 61 23 17 75 Fax: (33) 5 61 23 34 04.///Article N° : 5256