Burkina Faso, a Leap into the Unknown

24 Mar 2017

Project by Avatâra Ayuso © Photo by Margo Tamiz+®

One Dance UK member, Avatâra Ayuso, recounts her recent time spent working with dance artists in Burkina Faso, as part of her dance research project, an experience filled with challenges and unexpected highlights.

I met the dance artist Souleymane Ladji in Senegal, he came from a country I did not know much about: Burkina Faso. My first reaction was to feel a little embarrassed because I had no idea in which part of Africa Burkina was (somewhere in the middle?). Map research and a few conversations with him made me realise how rich and active the dance sector is there. I had to go. I applied for the International Artist Development Fund from the British Council and got ready to take a leap into the unknown.

The main challenges I faced as soon as I landed: the extreme heat (never less than 40 degrees) and having to do everything (and I mean everything) in my very basic French.

Burkina Faso is one of the many West African countries pushing its cultural development against the clock. Traditional dance and hip hop seem to be the main forces, but contemporary dance is slowly gathering pace. There are two institutions that offer regular training in the capital Ouagadougou (neither currently funded by the government):

  • EDIT (a school run by Irène Tassembédo, a fascinating woman, a driving force in the dance scene of Burkina)
  • CDC La Termitière (run by Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro)

They both have a very different approach to training: EDIT concentrates on the mastering of techniques (afro-contemporary, contemporary, pilates, etc); CDC in choreography by working with guest choreographers.

Project by Avatâra Ayuso Images by Margo Tamiz+®

My stay coincided with the Triennale Danse l’Afrique Danse, the biggest African contemporary dance festival to date. It was held in Ouagadougou, under the artistic direction of the choreographers Salia Sanou and Seydou Noron, in collaboration with Irène Tassembedo. The theme of the festival was Memory and Transmission, bringing together works by emerging choreographers as well as new pieces by more established ones. Economic support (with a budget of €350,000) came from the Institut Français, the Burkina Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the oil company TOTAL.

All shows and activities were free to attend. There were conferences, workshops, short and full length productions, indoor and outdoor events (all under a strong constant heat of 40 degrees!). According to their records it was the first time programmers from all over the world were attending a festival of this scale in Africa (I have to say I was the only one from the UK, and I was there as an independent artist researching not as programmer). Important representatives of African dance such as Germaine Acogny (the “grand dame” of contemporary dance on the continent) were there to contribute to the discussions on what’s next for contemporary Dance in Africa.

A great variety of proposals (some more conceptual, some more physical, some more theatrical) from many of the African countries were presented: from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. The level of the dancers was admirable, as was the dramaturgy of the work. It was very refreshing to see a great variety of body shapes. It was clear that body aesthetic is not a priority for them, rather the quality of dance of their performers. Most of the works were associated with political issues (done in a very elegant and effective way): Art has to promote change and many of the artists use their work to shake things up.

“Art has to promote change and many of the artists use their work to shake things up”

Among much good work, there are two works that will stick in my mind for a long time: one from Salia Sanou who is from Burkina Faso and is well known in Africa – “Du Désir D’Horizons” is a piece on refugees done with such sensitivity, strong physicality and poetry;  and a piece by an emerging female choreographer Kaisha Essiane from Gabon, with her piece “XXL” – a reflection on unconventional bodies.

Project by Avatâra Ayuso Image by Margo Tamiz+®

It was a privilege to be present in such an important moment for the contemporary dance in Africa. They have a lot of things to say and I found their discussions of what is coming next for the sector in Africa very stimulating. They are raising their voices, their artistic voices, in a dance landscape that is young and very promising.

The triennalle developed during one week, the rest of the two weeks in Burkina I observed rehearsals, taught class, gave choreographic workshops, started a new duet for Ladji and myself and worked on a photographic project with the great Margo Tamizé.  This gave me a good perspective on how they work in Burkina: They have a different pace when creating (no ”express” choreography, they invest time in creating!); they enjoy pure physicality as much as conceptual work; and above all, they feel the freedom to be contemporary in the way they want to be: They don’t play to Exoticism or Africanism. How liberating to experience this!

A curious difference: there are far more male dancers than female dancers and some initiatives have been launched to engage women in dance. The opposite to our case in Europe, but also a paradox when you see that the women are the ones that have shaped the contemporary dance landscape in the whole of Africa.

After three weeks, I came back inspired, challenged, with a bit of extra French! and eager to follow up on the development of contemporary dance not only in Burkina but in the whole of Africa. I feel privileged to have experienced this new wave of contemporary dance: their proposals are brave and unique. The dance sector in Europe will soon realise: Africa is waking up, they are telling their stories their own way.

Avatâra Ayuso

Artistic Director of AVA Dance Company

Thanks to British Council for allowing me to undertake this research and to Margó Tamizé, Souleymane Ladji and Irène Tassembédo for their generosity by introducing me to the sector in Burkina and to its artists.