By: Esther Baker-Tarpaga copyright 2010
*Dedicated to the strength and dance of the late Beatrice Kombe (1972-2007) from Ivory Coast, Madrice Imbujo (1975-2006) from Congo Brazzaville, and Souleyman Porgo (1972-2006) from Burkina Faso.
Contemporary Dance: Africa
Dialogues De Corps Burkina Faso 2004
“I did not study at a school. I developed myself from what I have, from what I live, from my childhood, from the life surrounding me. I live in a society that is hard and I choreograph what I live. Around me there is poverty and difficulty. I am shaped by the society in which I live.”- Beatrice Kombe, Ivory Coast- Director of Compagnie Tche Tche (Kombe 2004)
“I would like to tell all the dancers of the world. Dance is a job like any other. It is something that you must prepare for the present and the future. When we are dancers we must receive and share. It is up to us to show that dance is something to be respected and it takes work to dance. We must share it with other people give people the courage and desire do it.” –Madrice Imbujo, Congo Brazzaville- Dancer in Studio Kabako (Imbujo 2004)
Beatrice Kombe and Madrice Imbujo are part of a generation of powerful, creative, and influential contemporary choreographers born in Africa. In the past twenty years throughout West, South, Central, North, and East Africa, contemporary dance has been taking root, expanding and diversifying movement innovations and choreographic work. Dance festivals are annual events in many urban centers on the African continent and Africa-based dancers and choreographers are touring the world stages to present their choreographies. The contemporary dance movement or “Movement (R)evolution ” is taking place in festivals and exchanges in capitals such as Dakar, Ouagadougou, Yaoundé, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Tunis.
“At first we had 60% of the dancers coming from Burkina. Today there are dancers and companies who come from all over Africa and the world. We are interested in continuation and remain aware of what happened before and what will come in the future. The strength of Dialogues De Corps is not only dancers that come from Africa but also dancers that come from everywhere in the world to show their choreography and participate in the workshops.” (Sanou 2004)
Philosopher Anthony Appiah uses “cosmopolitanism” to describe a moral manifesto of how contemporary humans exist together and how human dialogue across boundaries is inevitable (Appiah 2006). Choreographic “cosmopolitanism” is prevalent in the former French colony Haute Volta, now known as Burkina Faso, which translates to “the land of people with integrity.” At festivals such as Dialogue De Corps companies and teachers from many different backgrounds influence each other through an exchange of styles, traditions, and dance cultures. Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro are amongst the many African contemporary choreographers leading the way for developing cross cultural, intercultural, and development in the arts both locally and globally. Founders of Dialogues De Corps Dance Festival, choreographers Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro are from a generation of Burkinabe artists shaped by their family and school educations, their early traditional dance and theatre trainings, their participation in international choreographic exchanges, and the ethical ideals set in place by former Burkinabe President Thomas Sankara. Sankara’s revolutionary leadership for an Africa not dependent on France, influenced an entire generation of youth to take their future in their own hands.
Salia Ni Seydou and Dialogues De Corps 2004 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Dialogues de Corps is a bi-annual Festival and Choreographic Meeting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro of Companie Salia Ni Seydou founded Dialogues de Corps in 2000 to support the emerging contemporary dance movement in Africa. Dialogues De Corps translates as Dialogue of Bodies, which is a meeting site of intercultural and cross-cultural dance exchange. The meetings consist of two dynamic weeks of evening performances, professional dance workshops, dance films, and colloquiums with participants from all over Africa and selected foreign countries. Dancers from different countries move, sweat, perform, and share meals together.
“I think this festival has a lot of future to open towards the world. The festival is dynamic. We arrive in the festival and we are taken in because we are not only audience or performer but we are also activists and artists of the festival.” (Sanou 2004)
Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro grew up performing traditional dance and theatre. Seydou Boro was born into a family of artists and in 1994 he starred in the film “L’Heritage du Griot” (Heritage of the Griot) based on Malian King Sundiata Keita’s life. Salia Sanou was a student and dancer in Burkina Faso’s second largest city Bobo, renowned for its richness in arts.
“I began my dance career in Bobo-Dialasso and I wanted to be an artist but I put my studies first. After school whenever I had free time I danced. School remained a priority for my family and I. My conscious choice to make dance my profession came through meeting certain people like Alassan Congo , Drissa Sanou, and Mathilde Monnier. I participated in Mathilde’s project ANTIGONE, which permitted me to meet other people and work with Seydou Boro. Thanks to Mathilde, Seydou and I had a project in common and it reinforced our complicity. It was a natural process for us to begin our company Salia Ni Seydou, to found Dialogues de Corps Festival, and now to construct Burkina Faso’s first Center for Choreographic Development. I did not know that one day I would dance or even live in France. When I began to work with Mathilde I stayed in the moment and things progressed quickly. I tried to listen to my body to respond best to any situation that presented itself.” (Sanou 2004)
Salia and Seydou established their own company Salia Ni Seydou in 1995, which began to tour internationally with its first big production “Le Siecle des Fous” (The century of Fools). While they toured their own work and offered workshops wherever they went to dancers from around the world, they continued to work with and train young traditional dancers in Burkina Faso. Salia choreographed numerous works on “Les Bourgeons du Burkina,” a youth dance and music company founded in 1987.
“As young choreographers we knew how to use our potential and take advantage of opportunities. When we created our company Salia Ni Seydou there were dance conferences and competitions, such as that in Angola and we presented our work and it was well received. This success continued yet we did not think that international success would arrive as early as it did. Success did not destabilize us, rather it made us realize we had something important to defend and share. Creating DDC was a necessary step. Seydou and I created this festival in Burkina to give opportunities to Burkinabe dancers. We did not wait for Burkina Faso’s Minister of Culture to initiate. We did it ourselves.” (Sanou 2004)
Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro’s influence is exponential on young choreographers through Dialogues De Corps and more recently through the founding of the Choreographic Development Center. During the December 2006 Dialogue de Corps Festival, Salia Ni Seydou and their guests inaugurated Burkina Faso’s first National Center for Choreographic Development- Centre de développement chorégraphique La Termitière (CDC). It was the first year that the major performances took place outside of the French Cultural Center (Centre Culturelle Francais), which is run by the French government. The new CDC is amongst the first Centers for Choreographic Development in West Africa which was built on land donated by the Burkinabe government and is run by the Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro and the members of their administrative, artistic, and technical team. Several Burkinabe artists I spoke with during the festival were very proud to have their own independent space ran by and for artists from Burkina Faso, as one Burkinabe choreographer mentioned to me “This inspires me to one day build my own dance space in my neighborhood.”
“Young artists who are working on their first choreographic piece are able to see new work, meet more experienced choreographers and they exchange with older artists who are well known who have been choreographing for a long time. It inspires the young choreographers. One of Salia and my principal objectives is to help this young generation.” (Boro 2006)
Centre Development Choregraphique La Termitiere
“For the first edition of Dialogues De Corps there was a small audience. If you compare the first year’s audience to the fifth there are more people and this is encouraging. Each year our audience grows…. If you look back seven to ten years ago, people in Burkina Faso did not even know what contemporary dance is. Today people talk about it.” (Sanou 2004)
Located in a popular neighborhood called Samandin, the new CDC is a revitalization of an urban space that previously consisted of a run-down cement outdoor amphitheatre and an open field dissected by dirt roads and strewn with discarded plastic bags. Freshly painted, the new CDC has a large indoor black box theatre space, offices, dorms, and an outdoor performance area. Throughout this year’s festival many local youth from Samandin attended free outdoor concerts, site-specific improvisations, and performances. Several Samandin residents said that they sense a change will take place within the neighborhood because of the new artistic center. CDC administrator Esther Ouoba declared “CDC will not only present cutting edge choreography from Africa and around the globe as well as run international workshops and residencies to help develop contemporary dance in Africa, but it equally wants to give back to its’ surrounding neighborhood and communities” (Ouoba 2006).
Several hours before the festival began the technical team was putting the finishing touches of black paint and laying the floor. With the help of caffeine and cigarettes the talented technical and administrative staff worked tirelessly. Audiences filed into the 250-seat theatre equipped with a state of the art light and sound system. It was harmattan season and the red brown dust blew that off the Sahara desert floated in the air. The dust created a magical effect and feeling of intimacy as the stage lights illuminated the shadows and performers bodies onstage.
CDC Selected Performances in 2004
The CDC allows us to defend all the dynamics of the process of a creation. At the same time it is not about separating those who have more experience and less experience in different categories. We are together in the same pathway and in the same trajectory. Therefore young artists who are working on their first choreographic piece are able to see and meet and exchange and compare their work with older artists who are well known who have been choreographing for a long time. It gives a dynamic to young choreographers (Boro 2004).
Each night opened with three to six company performances. The themes of the choreographic work were diverse in meaning reflecting the individual and companies histories sense of place as a global and local artists and cultural workers. Thirty-one companies performed in three different locations around the city. Themes of immigration and questioning nationhood appeared in several works. Faso Danse Theatre from Burkina Faso utilized live rapping and an onstage Maquis to address stories of exodus dreams many African youth envision towards Europe and America and “those who crossed the barrier” to return to their native land. Dancing the physical effects of immigration, Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project from Burkina Faso/USA utilized chaos and stillness to portray the internal affects of immigration on the body. Company Chata from Tunisia rhythmically danced a “destiny deadened” with odd-job mans and living from day to day in contemporary Africa. Cie Wayo from Kenya was inspired by the writings of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and asked the audience “do we belong to specific communities just because we are born in them?”
Societal injustices and environmental problems were important issues addressed in several companies work. Compagnie Ba from Burkina Faso pleaded for a “solution to the injustices and inequality that destroy African society.” Compagnie Conni-Dzing from Cameroon advocated for “love to combat hate, the sources of all wars and unhappiness.” Compagnie Corp’Art from Burkina Faso/Democratic Republic of Congo addressed the importance of water and how we must be careful with this precious resource. Nelisiwe Xaba from South Africa in her solo “Plasiticization” made use of comedy to deliver its message, exploring the many ways in which society uses plastic, from packaging to prophylactics.
Other individuals and companies performed the complexities of their cultural histories and the impermanence of capturing movement. Compagnie Teguere from Burkina Faso danced their “relationship to cultural heritage” and dedicated their performance to the late Souleymane Porgo. Compagnie Merlin Nyakam from Cameroon/France, painted himself in white clay and accompanied by a live didgeridoo onstage reflected on his origin within humanity. Ousseni Sako from Burkina Faso traced his internal scars through milk and mud representing the blood and land of his ancestors. Norma Claire from Guyana/France danced a haunting an elegant solo on roots and ancestral memories. Compagnie Vahinala from Madagascar danced a highly physical work about the body in space marks each instant of life. Mhayise Productions from Durban, South Africa told the story of a boy’s coming of age in a rural community. Compagnie TA from Burkina Faso in collaboration with a French visual artist, danced with paint onstage and created a visual masterpiece through the traces they left with their bodies.
Throughout the festival of performances there were two weeks of workshops. This year included individuals and companies from Ivory Coast, Morocco, Congo Brazzaville, Slovenia, France, Cameroon, Italy, New Caledonia, Madagascar, USA, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Netherlands, Benin, Switzerland, and Tunisia. In addition to the dancers who participated in the festival there were many contemporary dance “elders” such as Germaine Acogny and Alassaan who also helped inaugurate the new CDC.
Pan-African Roots and Routes
“A vibrant contemporary dance scene developed in the swift currents of urbanization and globalization in late 20th century Africa. Rooted in the National Dance Company movement beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, the scene was accelerated by international exchanges, and a range of national and Pan-African competitions, often levered by foreign—particularly French—investment. Far from reinforcing (or inventing) a status quo of tradition or nationhood, the fast-track artists who people this “movement (r)evolution” continue to reframe rapidly shifting relationships and identities as they create and perform in Africa and abroad.” (Frosch 2007)
Respected elders in contemporary dance; Germaine Acogny, Alassaan Congo, Longa Fo Eyeoto, Sylvia “Magogo” Glasser , Alphonse Tierou, and Irene Tassembedo have taught throughout the world and have shaped a future generations of choreographers. In the 1970’s they were amongst many dancers from all over West Africa invited to train at Mudra Afrique a pan African dance school founded in 1977 in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal’s first President after independence, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart founded Mudra Afrique and Senghor appointed Germaine Acogny to assist in running the school. Individuals came from many countries to learn Classical, Modern Dance, and African Dance. President Senghor described the aims of and philosophy of school as follows: ‘Beyond the establishment of an inventory of Black African Dance Steps and movements, MUDRA AFRIQUE must absorb the steps and values of other dance forms in order to generate a new kind of Black African Dance that can be understood and appreciated by people of all cultures’” (Acogny 1994).
These individuals returned to their home countries and formed their own companies and schools teaching younger dancers contemporary and traditional dance techniques. They also crossed borders to teach and perform in Europe and America. They dispelled the singular perception of one “African dance” and they overturned the notion of “primitive,” which is a term many Europeans were calling African dance at in the 1970’s (Acogny 2006). They paved the dancing road for the many choreographers and dancers who followed them.
Mudra Afrique has since closed but Germaine Acogny and many of her contemporaries have gone on to become artistic leaders and choreographers locally and globally. Germaine Acogny established “Ecole de Sables ” in Toubab Dialaw Senegal, which is similar to Salia Ni Seydou’s CDC in the sense that it offers residency space, dance workshops for local and international dancers, and is a home base for her company Jant Bi.
Choreographers such as Germaine Acogny, Seydou Boro, and Opiyo Okach tour internationally and may reside in more than one country. Their work takes them to live in Paris, Los Angeles, and Berlin, for example. They are influenced by their own cultural traditions, their traditional dance mentors, their exchanges with many different African, European, and Asian choreographers and teachers, and their environments, which range from the natal village to urban city centers. Choreographer Opiyo Okach specifically addresses these shifts, migrations, and cosmopolitanisms of contemporary identity.
“In Shift…centre, as in previous work, I’m interested in the fabric of crossed cultural space as conceptual framework for choreographic inquiry; the unique ways of being and notions of identity shaped by conflict and contradiction, the wealth and diversity of viewpoints intrinsic to such spaces. How does a crossed culture context play on notions of corporeity, place and belonging: perception of physical and visual space. To cross divergent viewpoints and experiences I’ve chosen to work with artists of differing origins both in terms of culture, artistic discipline and sensibility; dancers and a video artist from East Africa, a scenographer, music composer and sculptor from France. The eastern coast of Africa by itself represents centuries of remarkably crossed geo-cultural time-space between African, Asian and Arabic worlds….’ (Okach 2006)
Many of Africa’s leading choreographers were offered scholarships to train in choreographic development centers in France, Belgium, and Germany. In addition, funding for their choreographic works is often distributed by European funding agencies such as Africalia and L’AFAA. Many of the African governments only provide up to a certain amount of economic support thus there is a dependency on outside funding. Thus African based choreographers apply for grants from European funding resources and also the presenters who are based outside of African can also support the tours of African dance companies. Beatrice Kombe does not view the “foreign” funding as a form of “neocolonization” but rather she sees her teaching and performing as a form of exchange.
There are those who do workshops in Europe because they want to learn something new. But I did not do any work in France. I believe in the work of exchange between people and countries and not neocolonization. It is important that we communicate: north south, south south etc. We are in world of communication and I think about this as exchange. It’s not in one-way direction, it’s a go and return. For example, students may come to my school in Ivory Coast and I also may teach at Universities in the USA. (Kombe 2004)
Many African choreographers are international. They are the present and future of contemporary dance, which is dance across borders and creating dialogue and exchange with dancers around the globe. In the following section several choreographers voices and images dance across the pages.
I attended the first DDC festival in 2003 when my friends Fatou Cisse and Andreya Ouamba of Compagnie 1ere Temps were invited to perform their work. I was invited in 2004 to perform my own solo and then again in 2006 with my partner and our company Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project. While in Ouagadougou I participated in the workshops, attended performances, and dialogued with choreographers, presenters, and performers. This article is the result of several interviews with important choreographers and performers who are part of the contemporary dance scene happening in urban centers around Africa and International Festivals, such as this one in Burkina Faso. I have included interviews with the particular artists featured in many of the photos and most of the interviews I have translated from French to English. Several of the excerpts are the artist’s words on how she or he describes their choreographic work. My partner, Olivier Tarpaga helped with the interviews. He was an early member of Bourgeon du Burkina and a co-founder of Compagnie TA. We have our own company Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project now based in Los Angeles, California and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. http://www.btdanceproject.com
Acogny, Germaine. 1994. African Dance. Frankfurt, Germany: Weingarten.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Frosch, Joan. 2007. http://movementrevolutionafrica.com/about.html
Okach, Opiyo. 2006. http://www.gaaraprojects.com/
Acogny, Germaine. 2006. Informal Discussion with author. Toubab Dialaw, Senegal:
Andriamoratsiresy, Ariry. 2004. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou,
Burkina Faso: November.
Boro, Seydou. 2006. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou, Burkina
Coulibaly, Serge. 2007. Interview by author. Email correspondence. France/USA:
Hlatshwayo, Musa. 2006. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou,
Burkina Faso: December.
Imbujo, Madrice. 2004. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou, Burkina
Ouoba, Esther. 2006. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou, Burkina
Kombe, Beatrice. 2004. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou, Burkina
Sanou, Salia. 2004. Interview by author. Video recording. Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: