Story by Betty Caplan
The form of the piece shifted from large to small groups and to individuals and each time there was a mark of respect and acceptance from the audience. What I enjoyed most about it was that it was in perpetual motion: using music from video games, Rother created something that the dancers and the audience would find familiar and pleasurable. The movements were simple but the interactions complex and constantly changing.
Being a Gala, it was a very long evening, and the rest of the work by KPAG was, sadly, diluted and at times lost altogether by speeches, performances by acrobats and Indian schoolchildren. The various parts of Tri-Changes which Rother has envisaged as one piece were cut up therefore and the relevance destroyed. Individually, however, they still came off impressively: the first sequence has been seen before but a harlequin show in the style of the Italian “Commedia del arte” demonstrated the students’ ability to take on foreign styles. This is a very highly polished and stylised art form which depends greatly on the qualities of irony and pathos; it is very European and difficult to carry off. The costumes alone, with red-noses and fancy hats, are a heap of work to produce.
Rother has trained her dancers to such a high level that they were able to carry it off but I wondered how it related to the other dance pieces and to the participants. What it shares with indigenous art is a love of irony, satire and a deep appreciation of clowning. Let’s face it, those at the top are clowns and not very skilful or funny at that. The final section was played to a minute audience as the show had already been going on for more than three hours without a break and people were tired. This is a pity because there was some superb dancing, and besides, dancers are demoralised by performing after a long evening to so few. This is for their development after all. But somehow the show had been hijacked by others with their own agendas.
From Wednesday evening the festival spread to Kibera, Mathare and other neighbourhoods where young people had a chance to learn and to enjoy themselves. There were beauty contests, salsa workshops, and a great deal of music and dance. Next year the festival should not have to justify its existence. I believe it should try to be more focused, and more closely identified with dance. Though interesting NIFTA did not look like an international event. The vision of the organisers had been to have guest artists from as far as Israel, Germany, South Africa and Ethiopia according to their Press Release but even local figures like cabinet ministers listed in the programme did not turn up for the Gala night.
The festival took place in a variety of venues because its aim was to involve disadvantaged people living in informal settlements and the children of SOS villages-who were to be the recipients of funding raised in the course of the five day event-in sharing the dream of a better life-that is often elusive-in the urban environment. The finale was a grand day of music, dance, and beauty contests at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre grounds.
How does one judge the success of such an event? If it is numbers then yes, many people attended and enjoyed themselves, except in Mathare North where the lack of electricity made it a damp squib.
In Kibera, a large number of youths turned up, some as spectators and others as competitors in beauty contests and dances.
In Kawangware, where the focus was on competition among reggae artists, the turn up was rather poor though even older men and women attended. What of the objective of NIFTA whose theme was “Bridging the Urban Dream”?
This theme was very appropriate as it was all about fulfilling the aspirations of living in a developed environment, complete with amenities and infrastructure that promote growth. To many young people in the audience, getting to watch live performances as those provided by NIFTA for free was something exciting. Looking at their faces, one could not help but notice a mask of excitement and joy all over them. The challenges they face-such as lack of money, food, proper housing and clothing back home-were issues that were forgotten for the few hours the festival was in progress in their area.
Some of the performers at NIFTA included Princess Julie, KPAG, Tone Theatre and Sounds of the Millennium dancers from Burundi.
NIFTA is a project of Kenya Performing Arts Group (KPAG), a dance academy founded by Odak Onyango and Saskia Ottenhoff in Nairobi.
With a view to helping improve the lives of the youth through the arts, Onyango says he went round Kenya, recruiting young people from Nakuru, Mombasa, Eldoret, Kisumu, Siaya, Narok and Nairobi. KPAG houses these youngsters at the Kenya Youth Hostels and trains them for two years in dance skills and styles with the aim of releasing them to the world to earn a living from their creativity. The first batch is now in its second year, and they are solely dedicated to this work.
Most artists in Kenya can hardly come by such training. Someone studying the arts for performance needs to develop a sense of discipline and sacrifice. It cannot be done quickly or without dedication. Several years ago there was a theatre academy at the French Cultural Centre, but since its demise there has been nothing regular. Dance Encounters-a contemporary dance event bringing together international and local groups-has taken place in Kenya twice.
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In 2005, the KPAG group staged Flamingo Flamenco- an original piece choreographed by Rother.
The KPAG project is unique in that it strives to develop quality and consistent training in Kenya.