|The room is pregnant with expectation. Every one is looking forward to some entertaining vigorous African dance on this Friday evening after long hours of work.OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
For some time, nothing appears to be happening. Just when the patience of the audience appears to be on breaking point, two young women appear. They roll on the floor like large serpents, confusing the crowd all the more. Like women in spasmodic labour pains, they rise up slowly from the floor. As they do so, some four pairs of performers carrying each other join them. Then slow drum throbs and music begin in the background, pushing the performers into what resembles some form of dance, each one in one’s own style. Confusing?
With well-coordinated movement but lacking energy, they move as if afraid to hurt the floor on which they are stepping in chameleon-like movement. They appear to be performing a combination of classical European ballet and mime. Journalists, like the audience of which they are part, appear not to know what and how to cover what is going on for their various media organisations. The best they can do is to either pose some questions to the performers on what is going on and then reproduce the responses in a parrot-like manner, or to simply ignore the performance. Still, some writers reproduce Press releases sent to them by the dance groups in diary-like format. Welcome to contemporary African dance, a genre of performing arts that is as confusing as it is interesting to Kenyans.
To most Africans dance is inconceivable without song, the oil that lubricates body movement. Much like saliva and the tongue. Without audible and sustained rhythm “whether made by jingles, drums, clapping of hands or stomping of feet” there can be no dance in Africa regardless of the occasion. Dances take place at birth, during worship service and even at funerals. An African used to this kind of dance finds contemporary African dance to lack spirit, soul and body as the solemnity with which it is performed robs it of spontaneity of body routines Africans are famous for. Although it has been around for almost two decades (since the mid 1980s), contemporary African dance is yet to take root in the East African nation that is undergoing a renaissance in the arts arena. The artists who perform this kind of dance can hardly make ends meet. To survive, they have to live and work in Europe only doing a few dances in Kenya every now and then. The best known of such performers are Opiyo Okach of Compagnie Gaara and Matthew Ondiege of Dance Into Space. Other new groups include Africa Art of Leila Masiga and African Performing Arts Centre of the Netherlands’ Arts Academy graduates Odak Onyango and Saskia Ottenhoff.
Afrija, an all-female outfit led by Suki Mwendwa, was the first Kenyan group to attempt choreography that could be considered contemporary African in he 1980s, according to Okach, the undisputed leader of the genre. Okach defines contemporary African dance as “the practice and conception of choreographic creation in Africa today based on concrete, theoretical and historical understanding of dance and performance in Africa in relation to other world cultures.” Contemporary African dance is a fusion of various traditional African dances with heir modern counterparts. For Okach, it is a fusion of mime”which he first encountered at the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi” with various African styles. While Ondiege’s is a fusion of African with drama, that of Onyango’s is a blending of mime, dance, jazz and theatre. After establishing himself as a solo mime artist, the British Council sponsored Okach to the Desmond Jones School of Mime and Physical Theatre in London in 1990.
Seven years later, Okach teamed up with Faustin Linyekula, a Congolese thespian who had been trained at French Cultural Centre in Kisangani to form Compagnie Gaara, the first contemporary dance group in Kenya. Afrah Tenambergen, a German-Ethiopian dancer with classical ballet background, joined them a few months later. A year later, in 1998, Ondiege formed the second contemporary dance group, Dance into Space. He had participated at a dance workshop at the French Cultural Centre, Nairobi, in 1995/96. Though rooted in theatre, Okach says, contemporary dance originated from the efforts of artists who have either had the opportunity to receive training abroad or worked locally with artists from abroad who may have benefited from international exposure
“Contemporary dance is a fairly new movement in the region; with no resources and structure for its promotion. The general public is virtually unaware of its existence,” Okach writes in his funding proposal. “The work of Compagnie Gaara, for instance, has been more frequently presented in France than in Kenya and the rest of Africa combined. It is essential to cultivate deeper contact with local audiences, their support is essential for the development of the art form.” Unlike traditional dances, proponents contend, contemporary dancers rely heavily on their creative input into the dance, he argues. The dancer also tells a story through movement. But traditional dance also does this, one may say. Jared Onyango, a performer with dance Into Space, says, “Contemporary dance is subject to the interpretation of the audience.”
Saying it is relevant to Africa as it is inspired by traditional dances drawn from all over the continent, Onyango says no two people can interpret contemporary dance in the same way. But is this not elitist, much like abstract art? No, he says. “That depends on your choreography and message.” How about it being foreign? Yes, there are elements of foreignness in this kind of dance because several segments of it are borrowed from all over the world, he says. To excel in contemporary dance, Onyango adds, “one must master Kenyan dances so as to fuse them with others from other parts of the world.”
Martin Ndung’u Njoroge, a dance enthusiast, admits, “Contemporary dance is complicated and calls for total concentration to understand and appreciate it. It is more or less like a theatre play and I rarely understand all the steps.” Appearing a little defensive, Njoroge says, “Even if I don’t understand what I see, I have to appreciate it; after all it’s our own people who are performing it.” Judy Ogana, the director of Kuona Art Trust, says contemporary art is catching on in Kenya and that being a visual artist, “I don’t have to try and understand what is going on. You learn to watch and appreciate and whether the message comes across or not, you appreciate the dance formation. The grace is what one is attracted to. I don’t struggle too hard to get the message or content.”
She argues: “It would be meaningless if what you saw in contemporary dance is what you got. It gives us food for thought. It is much like an abstract painting, i.e. what you see is not necessarily what you get. Understanding is not the key in contemporary dance.” Ogana says she appreciates Lingala music though she has no idea what is being said. “It would be a bonus to understand contemporary African dance as the appreciation of movement is more important.” Contemporary dance may have come from the West but once it got to Africa it became localised, she adds. So what does one need to appreciate contemporary dance? “Eyes,” Ogana shoots back. “Don’t try too hard to understand it, though.”
It is sentiments just like these that critics use to vilify contemporary African dancers for only doing it to make money and not because they believe in the dance genre. The messages in performing arts, they contend, should be self-evident and that people should not have to struggle too hard to piece together what is being communicated. Peter Mudamba, the artistic and creative director of Mbalamwezi Players Society of Nairobi, argues: “Contemporary African dance is the African dance of the future. Contemporary means something being created now. If we continue to cling to isukuti and karachuonyo that were created in the 1940s and 1950s, what we mean is that our culture isn’t evolving. Ondiege and Okach are creating the dance of the future.”
Mudamba contends contemporary African dancers are creating African traditional dances for future generations. “Contemporary means that people must continue creating new things, new dance steps and styles to keep abreast of the times. The world is becoming a global village with people sharing ideas,” Mudamba says. However Mudamba does not say whose “village” globalisation is creating African or Western. Globalisation as we know it is synonymous with Westernisation. Aware of the fact that only one who pays the piper can call the tune, Mudamba says pragmatically, “Donors may have a say in contemporary African dance, but if called upon artists should be prepared to create something new for themselves and not for the donors.”
All the same, contemporary dance appears not to be appealing to masses only being patronised by expatriates and other foreigners resident in Nairobi where most performances take place. Masiga says contemporary dance in Kenya is yet to gain its place. She reveals that most of the shows organised in the past have attracted only foreigners despite there being no entrance fee to watch them. Challenging the media to cover contemporary dance objectively and critically and not just to please practitioners like himself, Ondiege says they are trying to cultivate a sustainable African audience for contemporary dance but that it is a Herculean task. To involve audiences in their performances as happens with traditional dances in which everyone is an active participant and not a mere spectator, Dance Into Space blends their performances with straight mime and poetic comedies.
“Unless this is done, there is no way people can join in abstract and unknown storylines. We also try to perform stories that are familiar to our audience in order to attract them,” Ondiege says. Okach argues there is a need to stimulate contemporary African dance creation in Kenya in order “to bridge the gap between the wealth of traditional dance and exotic night club fare.” Kenya Performing Arts Centre, the latest entrant on the contemporary African dance scene in Kenya, made its maiden performance “In Sync” in November 2003. Onyango describes his act as “a collage of physical theatre, mime and modern jazz dance.”
He and Ottenhoff, he says, give training in dance techniques like Horton, jazz, modern, improvisation and physical theatre (Leqoc). Leqoc comprises acting, movement, storytelling, improvisation and voice. Although having been on the scene for some time now, the dances performed by Compagnie Gaara and Dance Into Space are countable: Cleansing, Dilo, Kit Mikayi, Boundless love, and The hunter. For it to get a following, it is important that the media either be educated on the dance genre in order to educate masses or be persuaded to cover it.
Okach calls for the promotion of contemporary dance in Kenya and East Africa. This appeal is hardly surprising for a man who survives on performances in France. His principal partners are Ballet Atlantique, Centre Choreographique National de Montpelier and Association Francaise d’Action Artistique of France and Maison Francaise in Kenya. Another issue working against the entrenchment of contemporary African dance in Kenya is the lack of appropriate performance space. Only Maison Francaise and Kenya Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi are equipped with basic dance floors.