Negotiating the Modern Space of African Dance

In the documentary, African Dance: Sand, Drum, and Shostakovich, choreographer Zab Maboungou, says that she always has to "negotiate the space" when she dances, implying that it is naive of us to think that there are many places on this earth that do not carry some echoes of our past, culture and heritage. She negotiates the space in order to give this past a present meaning.

In the film, Maboungou is quoted thus, "It is never just there, just like that, for me. It is a space that is inhabited; it is a space that is alive and I have to negotiate. I`m not just coming in to fill it up. There are things already there."

Like the space that Maboungou inhabits, African dance is a vast history of ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ that all the dancers, in this documentary, attempt to account for in their modern day expression.

Zab Maboungou, Compagnie Danse Nyata-Nyata (Congo/ Canada), is a choreographer and dancer and is one of eight dance companies featured in, African Dance: Sand, Drum, and Shostakovich.

The documentary is a map of African dance not just across West and Central Africa but also its ongoing negotiation between being a traditional and contemporary dance. The award-winning companies in the film were presented in Montreal, Canada, in 1999 at the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse, and it was at this festival that producer Ken Glazebrook took the opportunity to shoot the footage for this documentary. Alla Kovgan would later join him in the post production work.

The modern stage and past negotiate themselves in many forms throughout this film. Rather appropriately, the modern stage is usually quite bare and dark with only the dancers and their music to fill it.

Both Maboungou and Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe of Compagnie Vincent Mantsoe (South Africa) are presented as solo artists (even though Maboungou emphasizes that her musicians are not just decorations).

Maboungou performs, Incantation in a red light and bare set. Her body rolls and gestures, making steady, progressive steps throughout her space and in the music. Technically, her ability to move every inch of her body simultaneously shows an incredible command of her own internal space.

A self-declared ‘shaman in theatre’, Mantsoe demonstrates how people, African people, can feel lost if they do not know their own culture. Mantsoe’s performance of Mpheyane is more dramatic than Maboungou’s, using emotionally intense movements. His dance dramatizes his story with the beautiful lines he creates with his body. The space negotiated in this story is that of identity that is filled by one’s culture. 

In the film, Mantsoe states, “It (Mpheyane) basically talks about this man, it doesn’t matter what kind of man -- a man or a woman. He or she goes to adventure and the problem comes that he didn’t even have any idea, any knowledge of his own culture -- where he comes from, who he was … And so, in that way, he got very confused and went mad. In the end, he learns that it is very important to learn to know who you are and where you come from and to have respect for other people’s culture.” 

Both performances from Compagnie Tchétché (Ivory Coast) and Compagnie Cie Salia Ni Seydou (Burkina Faso) deal with the concept of blindness – a space that is a darkness of the mind and perception. Being aware of one’s ‘blindness’ begins the process of seeking expression. Through this awareness comes a sense of calm and serenity.

The title of Compagnie Cie Salia Ni Seydou`s choreography, Figninto, means ‘blind’ in the Bambara language. The dance implies that the faster we go, the less time we take for each other, and the more disconnected we become.

“For example,” choreographer, Seydou Boro, explains in the film. “Between two friends talking: One says, “I want you to listen to me now.” And his friend says, “Well, I do not have time to listen to you today, we will meet tomorrow.” The first says, “No, I want you to listen to me today, it is today I want you to listen to me.” And you say, “No, no, no, we can wait until tomorrow.” Well, you leave and when you come back the next day you find out that your friend is dead. And you, you are left alone. And at that moment, you do not know anything anymore. And you are about to blame yourself.” 

Figninto makes use of the image of sand to suggest this return to the earth. Boro says, “When one becomes aware that physically you will leave one day I think that life becomes calmer, steadier.”

Compagnie Tchétché`s dance, Dimi, deals with the same theme of blindness but in a different manner.

"She is blind not in the sense she has lost sight," says Béatrice Kombé Gnapa, "but that she is innocent and she is trying to find her life and she is trying to find her way out and in her improvisation and with her sensibility she is trying to come up with movements."
Dimi is an intense physical dialogue between the dancers created through bodily contact and lifts.  

Compagnie Sylvain Zabli`s (Ivory Coast) performance of Heritage modernizes the definition of the word. While Sylvain Zabli pays tribute to all his teachers in African dance and music, Compagnie Sylvain Zabli hopes to create a new heritage that the street kids of the Ivory Coast can cultivate as their own and "fight against the curse of the street kids." 

An intelligent, young Sidiki Outtaro of Compagnie Sylvain Zabli explains “What do they usually do with streets kids in the Ivory Coast? Street kids always have some classic path. They place street kids in the reintegration centers. In the centres they learn small crafts. But in life masonry, mechanics and carpentry are not the only valuable things. There are others, and dance is one of them.” 

The very look of Heritage is that of youth in its costumes and sharpness and playful movements. 

Finally, the last production, Le Coq est Mort by Compagnie Jant-Bi, (Senegal/Germany), is an example of how naturally and seamlessly traditional African movements can respond to other cultures. In the creation process of “Le Coq est Mort”, Germaine Acogny of Compagnie Jant-Bi invited Suzanne Linke to create a piece for her students for the purpose of exploring these possibilities.  Linke is a choreographer described as one who “unites in her dance both the historic German dance tradition and the development of contemporary German dance theatre.”  

Germaine Acogny explains, “Our mission is to bring up African dancers, to save their traditions, their roots and to introduce them to other cultures.” 

“African dance is a constant dialogue with the cosmos, with nature. It is an anchor to the earth and a bridge to the sky. So this is the global context of African dance, the socio-cultural and national context. So sand is a symbol for our school that is called “School of Sand” and its energy and African dance were discovered by Suzanne Linke.” 

Like Compagnie Cie Salia Ni Seydou, the dancers in Compagnie Jant-Bi use sand as a symbol of a return to calmness, to the earth and to the heat of Africa. Linke also compliments African movements with the use of other cultural themes, such as business suits, briefcases and the music of Shostakavich. Her work and Shostakavich are supported by the exquisite dancers whose movements are as natural and vibrant as the sand that turns underneath them. 

jant-bi-acognyGermaine Acogny of Compagnie Jant-Bi is quoted thus: “We should advance everything that our ancestors left to us so that young people can express with gestures their feelings of today.” Acogny believes that part of this advancement requires contact with other cultures in order to, “develop their own vocabulary of gestures.”

Béatrice Kombé Gnapa of Compagnie Tchétché is quoted thus, “We do modern dance – modern dance is the dance of today because we are people of today and it is a pure traditional dance of our ancestors which we give another color.” 

June 2005 
© lyw

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