African contemporary dance’s journey from birth to (re)cognition

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African contemporary dance is evolving rapidly. Proof can be found in creations performed at the beginning of 2003, in particular at the Dialogues de Corps festival in Ouagadougou and at the Africalia Plate-forme Danse in Brussels. African choreographers draw from today’s technology, making use of computers, digital technology and electronics – to better review their roots.

This has been a particularly rich season for African contemporary dance. Firstly, from a creative point of view, there have been several very interesting works – as much for their aesthetics as their subject matter. Secondly, Plate-forme Danse (1) was a key event. In uniting eleven dance companies from all over the African continent and the Indian Ocean, and numerous programmers from around the world, this was without a doubt the biggest event ever organised in Europe.
The event in Brussels constituted the basis of a vast choreographic movement, due to its size, diversity and the universal values it expounded. And the movement is gaining in maturity. During this year several axes have been elaborated.
Juxtaposing extremes
Is it any coincidence that image plays a central role in Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okach and South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana’s latest works? Opiyo Okach uses video and Boyzie Cekwana uses photography. In both creations these elements enable the choreographers to juxtapose extremes.
In Opiyo Okach’s Abila (Gaàra dance company), the visual space is transformed by two big screens suspended at the back of the stage. On one screen, images of the performance are relayed in real time. The highly talented cameraman Eric Angels projects images from the front of the stage. The other screens intermittently show street scenes, rehearsals, and workshops that the company has participated in in Nairobi.
By multiplying the space, this fascinating installation makes it possible to telescopically draw disparate periods closer. Thus, on stage, five dancers (four men and one woman) travel back to the sources of ancestral ritual. Using elements such as the ochre and white earth of the Masai, fly swatters, calabashes, etc. they reinvent, in a slow, spiritual dance, rituals related to tradition and to their cultural roots while the moving, urban, abundant image of today’s Africa, in which they also appear, plays out in the background.
This juxtaposition of different times and contexts can also be seen in Ja, Nee by Boyzie Cekwana (of The Floating Outfit Project). In his « work in progress », the choreographer questions the foundations of male domination in South African society. Here, strangely beautiful and disturbing black and white photographs of naked men proudly holding weapons (rifles and revolvers) are projected onto the floor at the right of the stage. In a square of light at the centre a dancer is joined by five others after forcefully chanting a Zoulou prayer song. Stage left, facing the audience, a man is slouched in front of a television programme that we can hear but not see, in which Aids victims tell their stories.
At the centre of this blatantly violent male universe is a solitary female figure (the formidable Désire David). She is full of grace and haunts the stage as she searches for a hypothetical place. « By collaborating with stage actors », explains Boyzie Cekwana, « I have tried to portray the dichotomy between an ancient culture and a culture largely influenced by the Western, modern, urban world. Through the age-old art of prayer songs, we step back to the origin of male domination in our cultures. This domination is intrinsic to development, acting like a pandemic threat capable of decimating generations of Africans, and African youth in particular ».
The space as a venue for dialogue
Dances anchored in social spaces, within reach of meaning: these two choreographies review a precise cultural heritage – that of gesture, of myths, in order that they dialogue with the present. For Opiyo Okach, « There is no animosity in the collage of ancestral ritual gestures and digital technology. I was looking for a meeting point between tradition and modernity ». And Boyzie Cekwana has the same approach. In projecting Zulu cultural references onto Western cultural references, the stage becomes an essential space for dialogue. It is as if he were prolonging – and liberating – contrasts in South African society in order to better perceive them, reinvent them and articulate them.
African contemporary dance is so active because it plays out the construction of new identities. And is not the ultimate aim of art to enable each individual to redefine themselves, somewhere closer to their own truth. Other choreographies also stage different cultural situations. In Triptyque sans titre (2), Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula uses computing technology and electronic music with a French DJ. However, this does not prevent us from being drawn into the shady atmosphere of his battered Kinshasa. La Traversée du Sud (3) is intended as a choreographic travel log, mixing electronic music and traditional African instruments such as the kora, percussions, and flute. The piece makes ironic reference to the cell phone craze and evokes ancestral myths.
In using modern technology, a new generation of choreographers is laying a bridge between their past and their future – as if they were seeking to define new references, new ways of seeing the world. In Abila, Opiyo Okach works with a circular conception of the performance space, which harks back to the traditional structure of African dances. « Frontal representation does not correspond to real life situations. It implies affront, antagonism – a somewhat rigid position that is unnatural. In real life, relationships between people are much more fluid. I want to continue to study more open forms of representation », he explains.
So, dances that invent themselves, dances of birth, of knowledge. « I am still plagued by lots of unanswered questions: what is the aim of the piece? To whom is it addressed? What does it represent and in what context should I situate it? However, I do know what it isn’t: It is neither art nor entertainment… » writes Boyzie Cekwana. His creation, which is both powerful and disconcerting, is strangely realistic. At the end, the spectators swamp the stage to look at the photos and television images amongst the dancers, who continue to stamp their feet. And the young woman, with the lost look continues on her journey.

1. Association created by the Belgian cultural aid service. See also the article « African contemporary dance: towards a new North-South relationship » in Africultures N° 42  » Contemporary African Dance », November 2001.
2. See also review in the article « Bodies in movement », in Africultures N° 53, December 2002.
3. First co-production between the École des Sables de Toubab Dialaw (Senegal) directed by Germaine Acogny, the Salia Ni Seydou dance company (Burkina Faso) and Africalia.
///Article N° : 5693

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