Choreographer and dancer Opiyo Okach is the director of Gaara Dance Projects. He works between Kenya and France and performs globally. This blog posting includes three interviews with him. Opiyo Okach speaks on his current choreographic projects “Territories in Transgression” and reflects on his previous project “Shift Centre.” In addition he speaks on the Go Down Arts Center, a thriving multidisciplinary arts complex, based in the Industrial Section of Nairobi.

Opiyo Okach- Director of Gaara Dance Projects speaks on his new research and choreography: Territories in Transgression. This video highlights his reflections on the development of this project and dance images from his new work “Border Border Express.”

Interview and dance footage with Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okach, Artistic Director of Gaara Dance Projects. Opiyo Okach reflects on his project Shift Centre and contemporary dance.

Our meetings with Opiyo took place at the Go Down Arts Center in Nairobi, Kenya where he was an artist in residence for many years. We could see his influence with the next generation of choreographers who were organizing a festival of Solos and Duets at the time we were there; footage excerpts from Dance Forum-Nairobi Festival of Solos and Duets 2010.

Opiyo Okach also influenced the creation of this blog. The impetus for this blog project is from my ten years experience as a cross-cultural choreographer in Africa and North America and the work of African-based choreographers such as Opiyo Okach, who in 2006 said, “The danger that recurs today is that the 
centre should be situated in one place; a place that holds monopoly of truth, a place that proscribes right or wrong, a place that determines good from bad…
Shift…centre… is not just a statement on the aesthetics of space, it is also about political and social reality.”- Okach, Gaara Dance, Kenya.


Opiyo Okach Bio:

Maintaining his place on the international contemporary dance scene Opiyo Okach divides his time & develops work between France and Kenya. Through a long term choreographic development initiative Okach has acted as a catalyst for new directions and perspectives in dance and continues to support the emergence of a new generation of dance artists in East Africa. Having received the ‘prix du Nouveau Talent Chorégraphiques SACD 2003’ Okach was awarded a ‘Prince Claus Award for Culture and Development 2005’.

Artistic director of the first contemporary dance company in Kenya Opiyo Okach remains the principle figure of the choreographic landscape of eastern Africa. The prize at the second Rencontres Chorégraphiques Africaines 1998, for the company’s first work – Cleansing, places him amongst the first of a new generation of choreographers from Africa.

Trained at the Desmond Jones School of Mime and Physical Theatre in London Opiyo Okach
integrates dance in his work on his return to Kenya in 1995 and following research on traditional ritual and performance. During the same period he encounters the choreographers
Alphonse Tiérou, Irène Tassembedo and Germaine Acogny.

In I996 Opiyo joins Faustin Linyekula and Afrah Tenambergen to form the first contemporary dance company in Kenya, La Compagnie Gàara. With its creation, ‘Cleansing’, in which the mundane gesture of everyday cleaning gravitates towards violent purification; the company wins a prize at the Rencontres Chorégraphiques Africaines 1998. For the company Cleansing opens the door to the international scene (Montpellier Danse – France, MASA – Cote d’Ivoire, St Leu Danse – Reunion…). It also marks the beginning of support by principle figures of French dance such as Régine Chopinot or Mathilde Monnier.

From 1998 the Ballet Atlantique Régine Chopinot actively supports and partners the group through a series of residencies and choreographic exchange. In 1999, she supports, in collaboration with the Centre Chorégraphique de Montpellier, the company’s new creation, ‘Rituals of the Rock’, consisting notably of the solo ‘Dilo’ for which Opiyo Okach would become known in Europe. Between 2000 & 2002 Opiyo Okach lays the bases for a long time choreographic development project in Nairobi – Générations 2001, with the support of Ballet Atlantique Régine Chopinot, Association Française d’Action Artistique, Maison Française de Nairobi, Ford Foundation and the program Unesco-Aschberg Bursary for Culture. The project combines dancer training, residency programs, research and choreographic creation.

In 2002 the choreographic creation ‘Abila’ emerges from this project, nourished by collaboration between Kenyan artists of different disciplines and exchange with two European composers and a video artist. Premiered in Nairobi and at Ballet Atlantique and Centre National de la Danse in France, the creation is presented in 11 countries in Eastern, Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean region (French Cultural Centres, MASA), Iles de Danse in France and several European countries (Germany, Belgium and Italy) – a first for a company from the region.

Following its discovery at Plateaux de Biennale du Val-de-Marne 2001, the solo, ‘Dilo’ is noticed at Festival Avignon 2002 at the Hivernales. Dilo is based on improvisation and instant composition work, inspired by the mythology of nomadic ethnic groups in eastern Africa. The solo tours internationally to over 17 countries.

In 2003 the society of authors and dramatic composers (SACD) awards Opiyo Okach the prix du Nouveau Talent Chorégraphique 2003. In the framework of ‘Vif du Sujet’ the SACD commissions him to create a new solo for Festival d’Avignon 2003. His collaboration with Julyen Hamilton, the renowned improviser, gives birth to the solo ‘No Man’s Gone Now’ an instant composition work. Following cancellation of Festival Avignon 2003 and Festival Paris Quartier d’Ete ‘No Man…’ premieres at Centre National de la Danse in January 2004 and has since known international success (Soirées Nomades of Fondation Quartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Plateaux de la Biennale du Val-de-Marne, Aix en Provence, Nouvelles Strasbourg Danse in France, Drei Wochen mit Pina Bausch in Düsseldorf Germany, Fabbrica Europa in Italy, Fitheb in Benin, Festival of Dhow Countries in Zanzibar, Godown Arts Centre Nairobi…).

2004 is rich in new transversal collaboration, notably with choreographer Thierry Niang, hosted in residency in Nairobi. The project results in the duo, ’Free Figures’, presented in France at Festival d’Uzes, 3 Bis Aix and Théâtres en Dracénie. It also marks the beginning of collaboration with choreographer Emmanuel Grivet for the duo, ‘Accords Perdus’ created at Regards du Cygne in Paris November 2004. ‘Accords Perdus’ is subsequently presented at Centro Cultura de Matadero (Huesca Spain), Danse Bamako Dance (Mali) and Pôle Sud (Nouvelles Strasbourg Danse)…

Opiyo’s recent work, ‘shift…centre’, (creation 2005-09) touching on relationships of identity, space and perception is in the form an evolutive process in which each series of performances is specifically created. ‘shift…centre…’ premiered in Nairobi and has been presented in France – Francophonies de Limoges, Danse L’Afrique Danse Paris, Platform Danse Bastia, Theater der Welt – Germany and toured in Southern Africa and Brazil.

In 2007 Opiyo choreographed ‘Take it Away’ for Andreya Ouamba with the SACD/Festival
Avignon program ‘Sujet à Vif’

Opiyo is currently developing the choreographic project ‘Territories in Transgression’. The first work of the project ‘Border Border Express’ – a solo in collaboration with electro acoustic musician, Alejandro Olarte, and scenographer, J C Lanquetin – premiered at the Rencontres Internationales de Seine Saint Denis in May 2009. ‘Body Evidence’ – a solo from the project is in development. A work process of ‘Body Evidence’ was presented during residency at Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts, San Francisco in May 2011. The quatuor ‘We don’t care what flag you’re waving’ – is also in development.

In September 2012 ‘The house that never walked’ a piece for 9 dancers from Africa and Europe produced by Steptext Dance Project premiered at Schwankhalle in Bremen, Germany.

Today Opiyo Okach is also artistic director of Gaara Dance Foundation – created in 2002 to consolidate the choreographic activity initiated in Kenya. Its activities include choreographic research, artist residency, choreographic exchange, support for creation and diffusion of work. Regional and pan African exchange such as the Dance Encounters (East African Dance Encounters 2003, Retracing Connections 2004, ‘Encoding identities’) initiated in 2003 are part of its mission. From 2011 Okach initiated a new dance development program – Performance Lab Nairobi – a collaborative process for contemporary creation. The third edition of the program involving 20 dancers/choreographers from different African countries – Chrysalides – is organinsed in collaboration with CDC La Termitiére, Ouagadougou and Ecole des Sables, Toubaba Dialaw.

  1. Josh Hines says:

    Opiyo Okach said that when he improvises he “accesses” something within him that allows him to perform and dance in ways that he could not do if he was not improvising. I agree with this statement. I am still new at improvising and still have much to learn but when I am improvising I feel as though I can do things that I wouldn’t be able to do with a set combination of movements. The focus and energy that is created while improvising is special and helps me dance better. I need to keep researching this aspect of dancing.

  2. Aimee Heslop says:

    This dance interview with Opiyo Okach on Territories and Transgression helped me realize that many other dancers feel the same way about improvisation as I do no matter their level of mastery in dance. I am experienced with improvisation throughout my dance career but it was comforting to see that professionals at this art are still discovering the ways it affects them during their authentic movement sessions or performances. A comment that stood out to me from Opiyo was when he mentioned improvisation being able to connect the mind and body in a way to accomplish an abnormality within one’s self. I feel the same way when I improvise. I explore new movements by focusing on a certain goal that I never would have found on my own during choreographed dance.

  3. Jenny Heslop says:

    It’s interesting to see how Opiyo Okach uses visuals and sound material as a backdrop for his dances to connect his choreography directly back to the cultural transformations. It is an interesting idea to think about how each of our bodies can be transformed based on our own experiences, making everyone’s movement different. I am really intrigued by Opiyo Okach’s experimentation with ending the “tyranny of perception” and how the dancers were mixed in with the viewers. It made the performers stand out more individually as well as made the witness and mover less segregated and more equally dependent upon one another.

    • Adam Houston says:

      i think it is very unique how he uses a combination of visuals and sounds material to tie in cultural influences into his dances so that the audience really feels connected to what the choreographer had in mind for influences for that particular dance. i really agree that everybody’s movement is based on their own story in life and the different experiences each individual has been through, and that in itself i think is what makes improv beautiful.

    • Tyisha Nedd says:

      Wow , this is interesting to me because I can make connections to “tyranny of perception”in my social work classes and just in life in general. In social work we talked about dominant groups and they are the people who basically dictate what is normal or right even and then everything else is abnormal, weird or the “other”. Therefore, I thought it was great to hear the concept of “Shifting Center”, and to see how the performance is literally set up to change perspective of what is considered to be the norm in dance is powerful to me and like he said I think it speaks to a larger political issue.

  4. Erin Kerr says:

    I really liked the interview about Shift Centre. Opiyo Okach made an interesting observation that everything seems to have a center, but that this center is constantly shifting. This seemed very relevant for me because of the connection to improvisation. I feel that while improvising, I always feel that my movement is coming from some central feeling, but that this feeling is different everytime I improvise. In this way, I feel that what I experience while improvising is very connected to the idea behind the project Shift Centre.

  5. Amanda Stricko says:

    One of the things that really stuck out to me was when Opiyo Okach was talking about the body and mind and how it is always changing. Dancing and improvising is one of the only ways to keep up with ourselves and express ourselves as everything continues to change. I have not had a lot of improv experience, but I really connected with this because he is basically saying no matter what you are experiencing, you can use it to inspire movement.

  6. Lauren Bedal says:

    I like when Opiyo talked about how improvisation can uncover a sudden “truth” about the body, and something new that he wouldn’t have thought about before. This makes improvisation performance both something new to the audience and the performer.The use of sound and video in his piece towards the beginning was really effective. The slow movement of the dancer contrasted with the unsteady camera shots, which helped to create a dynamic environment. I liked Opiyo’s collaborative relationship with the other artists who helped him make the piece. I think allowing those artists to openly contribute allows for a more interesting end result.

  7. Gracie Millette says:

    When he started talking about African work or Asian work it really got me thinking about the labels we put on artist and their work. I do find myself doing this time to time. I do wonder about his statement that this may never change. I think that it will fade a little but there will always be labels on artists.

  8. Ella Matweyou says:

    I found it very interesting that Opiyo Okach described the body as a territory and a “recipient of trangression.” Our movement is clearly impacted by the culture and region in which we live, but it is also affected by an internal place in our minds, our sense of identity. He made a good point that many Westerners view American and European art forms as the central ones. Previously, I had usually viewed contemporary dance and African dance as separate art forms, ones that complement each other artistically, but do not necessarily coincide. Now I realize that I need to broaden my understanding of contemporary dance in a cross-cultural context.

  9. Imani Gaston says:

    I enjoyed watching the “Opyo Okach speaks on Transgressing Territories” video. I appreciated the way he spoke of authentic movement. wtaching him dance onstage it was interesting to see the differences in his improvisation and the typical “modern dancer” improvisation. I think we slip back into the state of mind where we think ” I am a modern dancer, so I must move like a modern dancer” instead of doing what comes natural to our bodies and being to to who we are how our bodies move and where we come from. I feel that Okach really dance in his truest form, without presentation or even much performance. His movement is authentic and honest.

  10. Kayla Smith says:

    I really enjoyed how Opiyo talked about how the body has transgressed through territories and how this affects how the body moves. He comments on how the body experiences different territories and consequently often times different cultures as well. These different experiences allow the body to move and improvise in a variety of ways, reacting to the different atmospheres. I also appreciated how Opiyo reacted to whoever asked him what made his work African. Being annoyed by the question is an expected reaction, but the fact that he moved past this and truly thought about the question and tried to address the issue shows his capabilities not just as a dancer of the physical body but of the mind as well.

    • Kayla Smith says:

      I would like to further comment on the second video interview with Opiyo. In this interview he refers to many political situations such as the invasion of Iraq, colonization in Africa, and the force of religion on Africans. I think it is imperative when trying to exhibit a continental/national culture through dance to implement these factors because they are some of the most influential on a wide spread scale. Recognizing these, whether they are positive or negative, is a sign of acknowledging that which makes up one’s world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s