Since its introduction to Africa in the 1990s by Europe-based African dancer/choreographers like Senegalese Germaine Acogny, Ivorian Alphonse Tierou and Beninois Koffi Koko and promoted through cultural exchanges, workshops, and tours, contemporary dance, an art-form rooted in Western aesthetics (codes, skills, and values), is yet to find its place in the mother continent where dances are not passively watched in a theatre setting but danced in a free for all celebration. BOBASTLES OWINO NONDIH, PURITY NDWIGA and OGOVA ONDEGO report
The performers stand still like zombies, only to suddenly fall dead on the floor. As they resurrect, they roll, slither and writhe as if responding to the background sound of the angel of life that breaks into thunderous drumbeats. Then, vigorous leg shaking, quivering of hips, and aerobics as if celebrating rebirth, ensues. Then it is time to remove clothes, an exercise that is done with either erotic sensuality or the violence of insanity. Now barely in their underwear, the dancers approach, breathing in your face, and staring at you with glassy, expressionless eyes. They are sweating as if every pore on their bodies has broken and you can’t help praying that they don’t hug you. As they move away like the ebbing of a tide that almost engulfed you and as you sigh in relief, the lights dim and what is left are silhouettes prodding in the dark. You want to “get the hell out of here.”
But before you bolt out, a performer climbs on to the beams of the roof and starts toying with the lights. All in the name of dance. With the whole auditorium as the stage, and the dancers simultaneously taking advantage of its expansiveness with different activities, audiences keep walking around hoping to catch “something interesting on the other side,” until it is difficult where to draw the line between the audience and dancers as some dancers virtually disappear into the audience.
It is not until two middle-aged women singers from western Kenya break into Dholuo ululations and a dirge of sorts that the audience begins to identify what is going on:”The dance has begun,” is whispered across the floor. At least that is the kind of reaction that came out on the second day of the 12-day Encounters Contemporary Dance Festival in Nairobi on July 30, 2005. Although featuring plethora choreographers, dancers, administrators, technicians and arts writers and involving dance performances, training, video screenings, exchange and workshops at selected venues, this festival that ran July 29 to August 10 did not excite much enthusiasm in the Kenyan capital.
This was the second edition of Choreographic Encounters, a contemporary dance festival initiated by Gaara Projects in collaboration with the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre that has now been renamed Alliance Francaise of Nairobi This “Encoding Identities” festival followed “Retracing Connections”, the maiden Dance Encounters held in 2004 and which brought together choreographers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Congo-Kinshasa, Madagascar, South Africa and Italy.
Opiyo Okach of Gaara Projects, said, “Choreographic Encounters strives to inspire, restore, preserve and emulate social values by celebrating and asserting nationhood. The new dance from the continent marks a shift from the 1960s post-independence choreography of the national dance troupes created by the newly independent states, shifting towards the defining and construction of new identities corresponding to contemporary realities.” Contemporary dance has remained a new concept in Africa although it is said to have been around for close to three decades. But it is debatable to claim that it is “defining” new identities corresponding to contemporary realities”. The major function of art is to help humanity become clear in their perception of life. But “Shift-Centre”, the performance of La Compagnie Gaara that we have described at the beginning of this article, appears not to have lived up to this billing. But then this is hardly surprising as it was listed as being French though performed by Kenyan Okach who also doubled up as the artistic director of Encounters.
Kenyan performances were Juliette Omolo, Neema Bagamuhunda and Rebecca Wangui’s “Musimu wa Tatu”; Moturi Kebaya’s “Hisia”; Lailah Masigah and Kepha Oiro’s “Loud Silence”; James Mweu’s “Hiyo Story”; and Neema Bagamuhunda’s “Broken Links”. Also staged were Roger Masaba’s “Untitled” from Uganda’s Footsteps; Aloyce Makonde’s “Triangle” from Tanzania’s Mionzi Dance Theatre; Desire Davids and Boyzie Cekwana’s “Cut” of South Africa’s Floating Outfit Project; “Errance” by Ketley Noel, a Malian of Haitian origin; and Burkina Faso’s “Fignito” by Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro.
As the performances drew to a close, it was Burkina Faso’s “Fignito – the torn eye”, that took the day with standing ovation. Accompanied by traditional drum and assorted (Burkinabe, Peruvian, Indian and Guinean) flutes, Djembe and Fle, the dance was as captivating as it was revealing. The message of cleansing came out clearly as it started with what appeared like a possessed man in action, and ended in harmony. The walking of the performers into the dark with dim hurricane lamps like herbalists in search of medicine; removal, intimation of washing and wearing of cloths; flapping of arms like water-birds and finally, pouring of potfuls of sand onto the formerly crazy man’s head, left the audience with little guesswork as to what the message was.
From across the oceans came Italian Raffaella Giordiano with “You will never loose me”; and Melanie Demers of Canada with “The little pocket solo”. To build a bridge between dancers and audience in order to enhance understanding and appreciation of contemporary dance, The Encounters carried a Dance Writers’ Workshop with local journalists. Although no one said it, it was clear that ArtMatters.Info had set the agenda for the workshop when it reported in 2004 that even journalists’ who are supposed to be a link between the dancers and the audience, do not know how to report and need training if audiences for contemporary dance are to be cultivated.
The workshop, facilitated by Donald Hutera, a dance writer with, among other papers, The Times of London, punched several holes into the hitherto closed world and intelligence of a dancer, choreographer and audience. The idea was to expose some of the themes often addressed in dance, show how they are handled by choreographers and dancers, and enlighten writers on how to interpret the moves and gestures and relate them to the prevailing topical issues.
Having been shown what to focus on and how to analyse performance space, writers were then expected to communicate their interpretation to the readers. During the writers’ session with dancers, there was a hue and cry that the mass media in Eastern Africa do not handle dance and the arts with the seriousness required. Though a genuine concern, it was apparent that this was not to be addressed soon judging by the writers’ turn out at the workshop. Apart from veteran arts critic Ogova Ondego of ArtMatters.Info, The Standard newspaper’s entertainment writer Mwenda wa Micheni and the workshop coordinator Kimani wa Wanjiru, other participants were mainly journalism students from Kenya Institute of Mass Communication, Kenya Polytechnic, and Daystar University, among others.
Writers, choreographers and administrators seemed to agree that there is need to be more open and interactive if an audience for contemporary dance is to be developed. Dance-makers are to reach out to writers who in turn are expected to reach out to the audiences. It was notable during the Encounters that the audiences were mainly (90%) white with the remaining 10% being, to quote one writer, “their white girlfriends.” With the entry tickets going for Sh300 (US$4) the event could not have generated enough money to break even or come close to the hosting budget: 80,000 Euros (Sh7.2 million).
But this seems to be the trend across Africa where contemporary dance appears to be something being forced onto the people from outside the continent. Sekombi Katondolo, a Kampala-based Congolese dancer with Yole!Africa, concurred: “This is not only happening in Nairobi. Even in Uganda our audiences are mainly foreigners, specifically whites. However, this is not something I enjoy as a dancer. I would like to see my relatives, friends, anybody who knows me, come and watch me perform. It brings satisfaction and happiness.”
While some people blamed lack of audience to the exclusivity associated with dance performances, poor publicity, and lack of marketing budgets, the venue may explain why very few people attended the performances. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had the shows been staged in strategically-located venues like Alliance FranÃ§oise, Goethe-Institut or Kenya National Theatre in the central business district instead of Industrial Area’s The GoDown. This venue, in spite of being “too cold” for some audiences, “especially if you just have to sit there trying to figure out what is going on”, is also “associated with a certain class of people” as various people said. It was also notable that the only contact between the programme organisers and audience was at the purchase of tickets. Nobody introduced the performances or warned people of their starting and ending. “They should not have ignored us. They should have given us introduction sermon at the beginning, and a salutation at the end, however brief,” observed Hutera. Other issues that came out were that music and dance go together in Africa where, rather than watching performance, everyone joins in. However, contemporary dance is not only enjoying the music and moving to the beat. Rather it is a dance that appeals to the intellect and requires emotional response for one to comprehend it. It involves body movements, which together with other artistic elements, are meant to either tell a story or to just entertain. As such, it is sometimes unaccompanied by music as we know it. “Music” can be movement made in tune with the natural or ambience sound of the location or scene. For instance, the lifting of hands slowly and the spreading of feet in tune with the sound of the wind blowing or whistling gently in the desert. This, according to Aloyce Makonde, implies that this form of art has the freedom on whether to use music. If accompanied by music, one needs to feel and internalise it within oneself before coming up with dance moves. Creating contrast or complementing dance can be done through music. For instance, the use of a dirge in a wedding or in a funeral.
Dancer Moturi Kebaya says he needs no extra instrumentation or music during performance as music exists in the human body. Beating 72 times per minute, heartbeats are like a slow song. He however states that music and dance are non-existent during a performance as nothing exists beyond the body! Contemporary dance requires the contribution of both choreographers and dancers to be meaningful and thought-provoking. For maximum concentration, artists need to manipulate audience responses not only to follow the music but also the dance. Apart from the music and the body movements, other elements like costumes, sound effects, space, and props should work together.
As the curtain came down on the second Encounters that attracted artists from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali, Italy and Canada, participants were concerned with the future of contemporary dance in Africa. Ways were suggested on how to improve the reporting on this dance through more workshops at which reporters could make follow-ups on the dancers, rehearsals and conducting interviews to get the interpretations of the dances. Another challenge is that contemporary dance lacks support structures and technicians. There are no people to invest time in arts due to the perception that it does not pay. The biggest problem, however, is that the African public have not fully accepted contemporary dance as being African.
Other activities during the Encounters included a two-week inter-African workshop programme, Atelier du Monde, a class for younger dancers, and separate workshops on technical, administrative and production aspects of dance. The event was, among others, sponsored by Afrique en Creations, Association Francaise d’Action Artistique (AFAA), Africalia, Unesco Aschberg Bursaries, Italian Institute of Culture, Radio France Internationale and Agence intergouvernementale de la Francophonie