Big, difficult questions are left in the wake of the 9th edition of the Danse l’Afrique danse! Festival, which ended on Sunday.
For starters: Why was it so murderously programmed – 44 companies from 15 African countries performing full-length works and solos scattered between the Soweto Theatre, The Market, The Wits Theatre and Wits Arts Museum over 10 days? The 14 solos were a megafestival on their own.
Why was this flagship event for the French-SA Season so clumsily curated? The programme was selected in Paris by Institut Français’ artistic exchange and co-operation department, directed by Sophie Renaud along with dance specialist Anita Matthieu.
Why did the Joburg dance audiences and dance professionals stay away in droves? Because Danse Afrique is not a brand like Dance Umbrella and New Dance?
Why was Paul Mashatile (the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council were partners for this milestone event) the first culture minister not to be present at this biennale, like his counterparts in Angola, Madagascar, Tunisia and Mali?
Yet, despite these negative aspects of this logistical nightmare, aggravated by continuous last-minute programme changes, this edition of the African contemporary dance bonanza will linger for posterity for many positive reasons.
Chiefly for its insight into magnificent creativity, cheeky invention and the tenacity of this continent’s and Indian Ocean’s dancers and dance makers.
In tandem with their cultural traditions, rituals and personal histories, they remap Africa with rigorously poetic distillations and expressions around subjects such as identity, gender, personal scars of war and challenges of daily life.
So what did Joburg’s theatregoers and dance lovers miss out on?
Apart from established artists the calibre of Mozambique’s Panaibra Gabriel Canda, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Faustin Linyekula, the DRC/Senegal’s Andreya Ouamba, the Republic of Congo’s DeLaVallet Bidiefono, Morocco’s Taoufiq Izeddiou, Tunisia’s Hafiz Dhaou and Radhouane El Meddeb, Reunion’s Jerome Brabant and a range of South Africans, young companies made their mark.
Notably Gladys Tchuimo’s Poolek from Cameroon, Senegal’s dazzling all-male Diagn’art, Mali’s Karemebe Studios (founded by Aly Kerembe who attended the Crossings 2010 residency in Joburg) and X-Trem Fusion from Cameroon who are doing thrilling experimentation with hip hop.
What passed artistic directors, festival programmers, educationists, academics, choreographers and dancers by? Seeing what their counterparts on the continent are doing, mainly in very tough conditions. Having their voices heard at the two highly articulate and informative professional meetings at Dance Space. Meeting major presenters and programmers from New York, San Francisco, Germany, France and others who were identifying participants for residencies and programming in theatres and at festivals. Witnessing African theatre dance pioneers Germaine Acogny and Sylvia Glasser interact with their celebrated living legacy.
While issues of masculinity and cultural identity were a major theme, many works ingeniously juggled with socio-political commentary. For the first time, many African dancers used their speaking voices in a range of texts.
Choreographies and performances were tinctured with residues of memory. Brilliant live music was featured in works like Canda’s autobiographical Time and Space: The Marrabenta Solos featuring Maputo guitarist Jorge Domingos (move over Carlos Santana).
The absence of woman artists identified in Bamako in 2010 was partly addressed by the programming of Madagascar’s Julie Iarisoa, Senegal’s Fatou Cisse, and SA’s Desire Davids and Mamela Nyamza.
Where were Neli Xaba and Kettly Noel? Until October 21 they are touring major stages in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Washington DC, Minneapolis and San Francisco with The Voices of Strength: Contem porary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa, produced by New York’s MultiArts Projects & Productions in partnership with The Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium (which had influential delegates at Danse Afrique).
The Soweto Theatre and the biennale finally came alive on Saturday night with a Soweto audience enthralled by the premiere of Cabaret by pantsula and gumboot masters Via Katlehong.
ithout this French government intervention, the continent and the global stage would be deprived.