Some months back, a good Burkinabe friend of mine Serge Aimé Coulibaly, visited me in Lagos, during a research for his emblematic piece KALAKUTA REPUBLIK, from such audacious title, already you know that it is somehow centered around Fela Kuti and Afrobeat, hence his trip to Lagos. While in Lagos, I acted as his unofficial guide, we were both sitting on the floor of my dance studio at the QDanceCenter, when he hinted me of his project, which is in its second edition this year 2016; ANKATA: Simply The Best, an international solo dance competition for emerging choreographers from West Africa.
I thought it was a great idea to have such competition for us, organized by us and judged by us, so he informed me that I was to be part of a seven man international jury, to select 7 finalists out of 18 applicants, from 7 west African countries. The task before us was to watch these assortment of solo dance pieces at our own conveniences, and send in our seven preferred works without justification, it will then be up to the organisers to compile the seven finalists from our selections. These finalists will then compete for a cash prize, a trophy and an international tour for the winning three. By the time I received the email with the links to the videos, I was already on tour in France and head sunk into other preoccupations, I have almost forgotten about the project, so I kept it in my unread mails folder, but often times, I have seen mails disappeared from such mail folder, I had gone way beyond the required deadline, before I was nudged by Serge. As soon as I got back to Lagos, I dived into it.
As a choreographer, one is generally doomed by cognizance, which literally means that I can no longer watch anything in a theatre, without the wearying awareness of seeing every details to be silently scrutinized and analyzed, it had become a past time exercise I secretly entertain, while I pretend to be a neutral audience member in a theatre, this time however, I have been offered such license to judge, so I had thought it was going to be a pretty much laid back endeavor, each night I’d make my installation, to watch the works projected onto the wall of my living room. Even though I was lying down to watch them in the comfort of my home, but there was nothing laid back about this task, the pain of having to watch 18 largely incoherent and torturous solos, that seem to last for an eternity, I must say, is incomparable to any form of tortures that the human minds and hands had ever woven, and inflicted unto mankind.
Each night I’ll fall asleep, when my eyes can no longer keep up and suddenly take a bow on me. It took me three days to get to the last of them, but much longer to get out of their pains. In my selection process, I didn’t bother myself with detailed analyses or the rigorous form of judgment I usually go through in front of a theatrical piece. I only weighed each work according to the amount of pain I felt watching each, so at the end of each, I have placed beside me, a little sheet of paper, where along with all their names, I’d either mark a simple, NO or YES, sometimes when it is so hard to bear, I’d mark NEVER AGAIN! Those that were neither No nor Yes, I'd mark either NO, BUT or WELL, YES, like that I know that I will only have to classify my list by the level of acceptance of pain they were capable of inflicting. YES, means I can bare this one, to NEVER AGAIN, which to my disapproving mind was a total failure and must be protected from the gaze of any sane human.
Few weeks after that, I was sent a list of 7 finalists, in the list, there were about three I have included in my seven bearable works, and the remaining four I wondered what selective parameters got a NEVER AGAIN into the list, but I was too sore to be bothered, until I later got a message that I was to be in Bobo Dioulasso, as part of the jury member for the finalists. I accepted and without any preparation nor premeditation I left Lagos for this 17 hours long journey to Bobo, for reason that will not be necessary to go into, I have missed the three shows of the opening night, the organisers have however, got them all filmed and the following morning, I was served the three works in a hard drive, to be watched safely within the comfort of my hotel room after breakfast.
Here I must state that, It has been a while that I have been seeing the works of emerging choreographers from the continent, and it has been a while that I have been continually disappointed, that I have almost given up and given in to the idea, that probably, the bar I've raised for myself is invariably too high for this generation of dance makers. Especially after the scandalous triennial of the Pan African contemporary dance scene, where, I dare say, no work seen on stage, was able to transport me to that height where that God forsaken bar was placed, but little did I know that, that bar was not only going to be reached, but a lady, completely unsuspecting, an unexpected stout and robust dancer was coming to put my tired expectations into the abyss of the long gone.
As part of the member of the Jury for ANKATA: SIMPLY THE BEST, to save you the pain of once again going through the pain I felt watching most works, I will now focus on the winning solo piece by this young Malian dancer/choreographer, Fatoumata Bagayoko, Fatou for short, so save it. The title of the piece was //Fatou T’as Tout Faire// which in simple English will mean, Fatou you’ve seen it all, but of course, an English translation obviously makes the sonority of this title lose its swagger, there is a musicality to it that, which already prepares your mind for something, that one could only wish will appear to be deliberate and not a slip of tongue. In the beginning of every show at ANKATA, we hear an introduction of the work we are about to see, by the artist, when the voice of Fatou, came up, unlike every other voices we’ve heard so far, her voice came straight from her heart to our ears, there was a sudden change in the atmosphere, the things she was talking about were too grand and too scary for anyone to imagine a staging of it, immediately you feel scared on Fatou's behalf.
Her voice came in unmedicated French language, which i now write in my own words “The work i am about to show is about female circumcision", another ambitious work you silently muttered to yourself, but she continues "...about the horrors of it and the psychological experience engendered on those females who went through such, I myself am a victim of this, and I as an adult I disagree, I disagree with the traditions that still allows this human disaster, and a complete loss of womanhood to be perpetuated,” at this point you are drawn in beyond logic, because she’s effortlessly mixing few things together, even in how she chose her words, you know this isn’t just another clever piece or art, it is a genuine quest, art began to disappear. "I wanted to know more about how this was done to me, so I followed them to the place were these homicides were being committed, I documented that experience, it was horrible, it was atrocious and I was even more revolted, as a young woman now, I still think of the damage that I still have to live with and the numerous other girls and babies waiting to be sent to these slaughter houses, so I decided to make this solo work, to speak of my disagreement, that’s why I titled the piece Fatou T’as Tout Faire. This, is what I want to show you tonight”
Like I said, immediately, one feels scared on Fatou’s behalf, this, if well done will be a journey of life, meanwhile darkness fell on the semi open air theatre in Bobo Dioulasso, the echoes of her last words weigh down your heart, "this, is what I want to show you tonight” your heart beats a little beyond normal, what exactly is she going to show us? During her visit to that house, did she go with a secret camera? Did she interview other victims? I wondered in the dark, till a fine light opens on a lone Fatou, standing up stage right, the misty harmattan airs make it appear like a lone eye of God, or like a thing between a super full moon and a mysterious bright object in the night sky, undoubtedly invading her earth-space, looking directly down upon her, and forms a pathway right behind her towards down stage left, she’s got her both hands raised above her head, both hands fallen below her neck. With the positioning of the lone light, you can’t get a full grasp of what it is, but no doubt the world was about to fall upon her world, there was silence.
On down stage left, there is a piece of white clothe, and what seemed like an uncountable number of blood pints, but they are bissaps, tied in small scales of little transparent nylons, if you do not know what bissap is, you must know Zobbo or thick raspberry. Bissap is a reddish traditional drink you’ll always find on the streets of Bamako. So it was clear right from the beginning, this is no space for hanky-panky, it will be bloody; she was going straight for our jugular. This for me is where art becomes most powerful, where the dancer has got nothing to hide, in fact she had told us, without a hint of hide and seek, what exactly this was going to be about, but what we don’t know, is how things shall unfold. Art for me is never about the what; the craft is in the how.
The music came up, her hands, raised above her head in stillness, began to come alive slowly, gradually becoming, becoming movements which suggests enchainment, but with the amount of fluidity and grace she exhumes, I heard a resounding OH YES within me. The evolution of her movement within the path, which the diagonal lone light creates on the floor, indicates the works of resistance that was done to avoid going to that house. Then the slaps came, real slaps from her both hands at her both cheeks, which she transformed into movement ideas, into music, and a pretext to explore layers of both upright, falling and floor movements. Any audience member that wasn’t in the difficult position of being a jury – that had the need to keep a safe distance for analyses – at this point were far drawn into this enigmatic spiral. The quality of attentiveness, which was expressed through the stagnant silence in the room, was simply tumultuous.
Then she moved gradually towards up stage left, where the bissaps were carefully placed, but first she revealed the white clothe, it was a muffler, she placed it over her head, and allows it drop down to create a veil, a cover behind which she began to speak, the words came in Bambara language, that were directly subtitled into French, over a big white screen occupying the back drop in centre stage. There was a distance between herself and the written texts, I read first few lines of the text, no doubt her text was powerful and in the direction of her introduction, but I must keep my eyes on her, the sound of her words in Bambara and her simple movement, and the sublime image of her kneeling before these array of bissap/blood pints, was enough for me, I could let go of literary meaning, and stay with this comprehensible imagery of that, in order not to miss the first thing she was going to do, with this moment we’ve all been waiting for.
So she’s kneeling with the veil above her head, this white veil, which slightly touches the surface of this reddish looking crystal things all over the floor, whence she brought out a knife, she picks one piece of the bissap pint, the words were still rumbling in our heads, the subtitling was still on, the music was loud, the veil was still on her head when she pierced and cuts into the bissap pint, there was a gush of thick red liquid, then she picks another one, then another one... and another one, the manner at which they spurt, was both spectacular and repulsive, aside the harmattan haze, there was equally turmoil somewhere in the air. You looked at the floor, you see the amount of bissaps yet to be defiled, you feel helpless, you feel her pain and if you are like me you shed a tear or two, and you say "No this can’t go on.” But Fatou wasn’t done yet, she later dropped the knife, and began, through spontaneous rhythmic movements, to directly pick the pints of bissap, and with her both hands, she would slam them simultaneously at the surface of her vagina, and red liquids will jet out through every possible direction, she will do same with her chest, with her head, with her backside, and this will go on forever, until it became a trance-like immersion with a total self abandonment.
This is not one of those grossly graphic documentary films about circumcision, that makes you want to look away, in this, your conscience is drawn too close to want to avoid looking, there was no more space between her and each member of the audience, you know it is simply bissap, even the smell of it confirms that, but you also know it is not bissap, the suggestiveness of horror and the sublimity of the poetic forms she summoned to her aid, her mastery of her body movement, while still remaining musical, still remaining within the artistic realm of dance, all were such proficiency and a delight to watch, yet revolting I must say. This however, was what makes the work most compelling, that knowing yet unfamiliar, that proximity yet repulsing, that transcendental experience, which is the reason for which we go to the theatre, mixed with this need to want to escape and simply live a safe life free of pain, those two opposing forces which pulls us both in and out of her journey, is the precise reason why this work is so mesmerizing and so necessary.
Pain isn’t a noun when a superb dancer is in charge, pain becomes a verb, the experience of pain doesn’t make sound, because to the one who experiences great pain, the faculty that leads to hearing will cease to be. This is simply what I refer to as great art. There was a minimalist use of space and of music, her movements were straight to the point, there will be no need for anything which had no business in this experiential telling, simple yet mastered, no exaggeration, no single moment was given away. Through her dense and repetitive movements, she captured and transmitted the experience of being there, she made it quite obvious that the essence of the dancer, isn’t to bring attention to her mastery of techniques or dance styles, master dancers know it too well that dance must be separated from the dancer, that dance must be in the service of the dancer's intention, and Fatou for me, with this work, occupies a space in my list of dancers to watch out for on this continent, for years to come.
At the end of it all, she was standing upright, in between this ocean of bissap, everything she was wearing had become completely red and drips of red liquid, she packs a final hand full of pints, the veil is still covering her face, she made a space for the pints at the tip of the muffler, and subtly began to roll the clothe around the pints, till it reached her bladder position, with her legs wide open, I saw a woman experiencing miscarriage, the sound of the liquid on the floor is unforgettable, she gradually pressed harder and simultaneously draws out the veil from her face, the look on her face, that we haven’t seen in a while, that chubby face reminds you of your unborn daughter, it reminds you of your sister and your mum, and every woman, who has the right to feel what every other woman feels. She keeps a straight gaze into the audience, while she squeezes out the remaining liquid on the once white, now totally red veil, squeezed it to the last drop of red, then dropped it and immediately looked away towards up stage right, then she walked away, off sight. Blackout.