Africa in step with the world
The continent's dancers have developed their own ways to speak about global issues.
The dance biennale Danse l’Afrique danse! is the premiere dance event on the African continent. It is part of the France-South Africa Seasons 2012 & 2013 and opens in Johannesburg and Soweto this week. Matthew Krouse spoke to its organiser Sophie Renaud about her life and dance in Africa.
Tell me about yourself and how you arrived at the position you are in.
I am 43. I was born in France, in Paris. I started in cinema, part of production. Then I met artists in dance. I was directing a big structure in France named the National Choreographic Centre, which is a place for artists to create work. Then I left to work on cultural exchange because, when I was young, I went to Africa and I never stopped going back to the African continent.
Have you visited many African countries?
Not all, but I have been to a lot of countries. I met the continent very early in my life and I met people who made art. The first time was when I was 15 — I went to Cameroon with friends and it was an important place for me. From this time, I followed things in Africa, I started following dance.
Today I am directing all cultural exchanges, from performing to visual arts, for the Institut Français in Paris, especially regarding what we are doing with the biennale.
I am also directing the big creative programme for Africa and the Caribbean, so for 20 years I have been managing the relationship with artists and professionals in Africa. We are also involved in the making of the photo biennale in Bamako.
We are supporting artists to create, we are supporting touring and, also, we are supporting festivals and events in Africa. And, of course, we are supporting the possibilities for the artists from different countries to go abroad, to start having international exposure. We have been making this biennale now for 20 years — the dance biennale that started with a simple competition.
Some of the great South African choreographers Robyn Orlin were, at the start, at this biennale. The first time when international people saw Orlin was when she took part in the Danse l’Afrique Danse! competition, which was in Luanda, in Angola, a long time ago.
A few years ago we decided to change the way of making the biennale and it was really important for me to make it every two years with a partner in a country, and to give opportunities to a different country to be able to host it.
So we decided every two years to deal with one artist, one director of the festival and to give them the opportunity to construct and to make the biennale with us.
It changed regarding the context of the country or with whom we made the biennale.
In South Africa, it is different to the rest of Africa because most of the time the festival has been directed by artists. If you are looking to Mali or Tunisia, in Burkina Faso or to places where we have held the biennale before, most of the time the festival started because an artist had decided to make a festival. But it’s different now because in South Africa you have someone like Georgina Thompson [of the Dance Umbrella] and others already doing it.
Two years ago we did the festival in Bamako, four years ago it was in Tunisia and six years ago it was a special edition in Paris. In [earlier years] the biennale was in Angola, we moved it from Madagascar. For three editions it was in Madagascar, but the problem with Madagascar was that we didn’t really have partners to make it.
Why do the French fund this kind of cultural co-operation?
We have to deal with two points. The first is the history, as you know, the history that we are involved in, in many countries, the history of colonisation. Things start from that.
The other part, really the most important, is that, if France has something to do in the world, I think that culture is really the strongest thing that we have to defend.
Is this year’s Danse l’Afrique danse! a special edition or is it always this size?
No, it is always this size. But there is a new thing. Normally, and since the beginning of the festival, we have had a competition. One part of the festival has been the competition and the second part is the programme to present artists and other projects.
After 10 editions, I really felt that the competition had to stop. We stopped the competition this year because now I think that the maturity of the artists, and the fact that in many countries artists now are taking a place in the world, means that the young artists in all the countries of Africa could find the resource to create. They don’t have to look to other countries to find direction, to create their own work.
At the beginning, the prize was money but it was not a good idea. The prize was really intended to support a big international tour of 30 dates. It was [basically] a co-production to support new productions.
Tell us about the programme and something about what people will be seeing.
Of course, when we do the festival in any country, we make a special focus on the creativity of that country. So this year there is a big participation of South African companies and we decided not to show ones that everyone knows — not Robyn Orlin and others — because they do not need the biennale now to exist in the world.
Danse l’Afrique danse! is a real pan-African festival. This doesn’t have anything to do with the way we used to make festivals in Europe, with works from everywhere. The Danse l’Afrique danse! is not a festival showing the best of the best things in Africa. It is just a place where companies, artists and professionals can meet and exchange.
What is the state of African dance and of the infrastructures involving it?
I really think that at this point there is maturity, and that African dance is really interesting. The interesting thing is that all the artists in all the countries, even if they don’t have the same background, and they don’t have the same training, they all have something interesting to say about the world.
All the artists, even if they use materials coming from tradition, they use dance to talk about the world and to talk about the society they are living in — to talk about what’s going on everywhere.
I think it is something new in Africa. In the beginning, when I started to see a lot, I saw many productions that were really about telling stories, something very narrative. Now I feel like things have changed, and artists are much more mature. They are very involved in political things, a way of talking about the world that is really common with the rest of the dance community in the world. It is really interesting because the artist in Africa is doing it in a different way, but they are talking about the same things.
They are talking about economic problems. They are talking about racism, they are talking about the crises everywhere.
Of course, the way it is done now is with less narrative and more abstraction. And I think it is much more connected with the way the world is going now, which is interesting because it is a specific thing.
I really feel that in the beginning it was a criticism that we had to deal with, people thought that because we were doing this competition the artist was put in a position of creating things for Europe. They wanted to make things that could work in Europe.
Now we don’t have this problem. Now the maturity of the artists, the fact that they see so many different things can work, and what is involved in exchange with the rest of the world, they are not just dealing with a fashionable way of making dance.
I think it is much more personal. I was really interested when I was working on this edition because I saw strong productions, very different, made with freedom.
The ninth edition of the biennale Dance l’Afrique dance! will be held from September 28 to October 7 in Johannesburg and Soweto as part of the initiative Seasons France-South Africa 2012 & 2013. There are other highlights on offer: exhibitions, colloquiums, discussions and interactive sessions. The biennial will take over various venues: Soweto Theatre, the Wits Theatre, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre. Tickets for all events and performances are R20. Book at Computicket. For information Tel: 011 492 0709/2033. Website for the France-South Africa Seasons 2012 and 2013: france-southafrica.com. Website for Danse l’Afrique danse!: danselafriquedanse.com