Almost half of the borders dividing African states are straight lines, drawn across maps by colonialists in Europe. Dismissive of ethnic realities, these arbitrary separations not only ignore natural geography, but also split tribal and linguistic communities. In Siguifin, French choreographer Amala Dianor defies these imposed separations by bringing together three choreographers and nine dancers from Mali, Senegal and Burkino Faso in a collaboration that merges styles and nations.
Dianor’s emergence as a choreographer also involved breaking arbitrary barriers, this time between dance forms. In 2000, he was the first hip-hop dancer to attend the National Centre for Contemporary Dance in Angers in France, where he was introduced to different genres including contemporary dance and neo-classical ballet. But hip-hop’s tradition of street-dance battles prepared him for the discipline needed in advanced dance training.
"When you go to a dance battle you have this exchange to see who is the best dancer," he says by phone from South Africa, where he is creating a new work. "If you lose, you go away to practise and come back to challenge another time. So the hip-hop community helped me to build this mentality that I must constantly aim to improve. When I decided to enter the National Centre for Contemporary Dance, I wanted to show to my community that it's possible for us hip-hop dancers to become contemporary dancers. And good ones."
There were stylistic barriers to overcome. He found hip-hop’s highly physical and demonstrative style at odds with other more reflective dance styles, so he had to adjust his approach to movement depending on the aesthetic.
“Before, when I danced hip-hop, it was like showing off and projecting a lot of energy. At Angers, I learnt different ways to move and realised that energy was something to be used in this dancing rather than being its ultimate focus. There are different types of energy. What kind of energy should I use on this movement or phrase? Is it enough or too much? And that’s when my own choreography began evolving into a fusion of hip-hop and these other styles. I was trying to put full energy into contemporary movement and release energy from my hip-hop movement.”
After graduating, he worked with various choreographers in different styles – hip hop, neo-classical, contemporary and Afro-contemporary – before forming his own company in 2014, honing a personal style that is both scholarly and street. His dances have an immediacy, but are underpinned by rigorous choreographic craft and are always centred on the individual. Rather than treat dancers as instruments that follow his instructions, his collaborative approach to creation focuses on the person.
'I was interested in how her individuality could change my dance to make it something more personal'
“I always ask what they have to offer as a person. Like, this afternoon I was working with a dancer and taught her a movement phrase. Then I asked her to remove all my movements and, while trying to remember how the movement made her feel, dance the same phrase from the inside using her own movements. I was interested in how her individuality could change my dance to make it something more personal.”
At another time, while rehearsing with three generations of hip-hop dancers, he turned off the music so they had to dance in silence.
‘Silence was difficult’
“In hip-hop when you are dancing, you have to stick to the music. It’s the number one rule,” he says. “And the silence was difficult for these dancers, because they felt that they had no support. But what I wanted was for them to discover their own musicality through their breath. Their breathing became their own personal rhythm and provided that support.”
He equates this highly collaborative approach to research and is not fazed when that research takes him in another direction. “Sometimes I have no idea of what the outcome will be. We just lose ourselves going in the wrong direction, but then we can find a new idea and start excavating it.” Nevertheless, he is always confident this provides the raw material for his choreography and trusts that it can eventually coalesce into a coherent piece of dance.
This confidence also allowed him to conceive of Sifuigin, a sprawling collaboration with three West African choreographers: Alioune Diagne, based in Saint Louis in Senegal; Naomi Fall, from Bamako, Mali; and Ladji Koné, who is artist-in-residence at the Choreographic Development Centre in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso.
There was no master blueprint, but Dianor wanted make the work in and about these West African countries and to show off talented young performers emerging there. Diagne, Fall and Koné picked three exceptional dancers at the beginning of their careers and each worked with the nine dancers in their country. Dianor would then use the movement material created to assemble a finished dance.
“Naomi was concentrating on the role of the foreigner in Africa. They can come to Africa with a lot of ideas and projects, and sometimes they work and other times they don’t.” This disconnect between plans drawn-up in abstract isolation and the less comfortable reality of implementing these plans also mirrors the colonial cartography that defined African nations in the19th and 20th centuries.
“Ladji was working more on the traditional dance and the traditional rites that are still important in communities.” Alioune Diagne investigated the nomadic people who move across borders. The line on the map might create two states but their nation spreads beyond these imposed separations. “These people are the same, but do the borders really change who they are?”
Sifuigin means “magic monster” in Bambara, the official language of Mali but also intelligible as Dioula spoken in Burkino Faso. “That was one of the reasons that Alioune wanted to investigate the travelling people. This is a common area with a common language split by an artificial border.
“When we started developing the project, we thought that it was too complicated, nine dancers in three countries. Each choreographer was creating something different in different styles and we had no idea how it would turn out. So it felt like we were creating a monster, but a magic one because we believed in the power of the dance.” Nevertheless, a sense of trust was necessary, since the three choreographers, having spent time creating their movement, relied on Dianor to capture the essence of this movement as he assembled the final dance. Some parts made the cut and others didn’t.
“Everyone needed to leave their ego at home! It was a very interesting and sometimes difficult process, but in the end the project isn’t about us choreographers. It’s about this young generation of dancers. I wanted this project is to show that there’s a new generation of Africans and they’re not what we always see on television. They aren’t going to Europe for a better life, but are staying and working hard in their country.”
The three choreographers are equally committed to their communities.
'We don't see traditional dance or hip-hop, we just see the dancers as human beings. And that is the modern person. They have bits of everything inside them'
“Ladji is building a community garden and helping local schools. Naomi has a festival in Bamako and invites dancers from all over Africa to work with a resident choreographer. Alioune has a cultural centre in Saint-Lous in Senegal, which is important in the neighbourhood.”
Co-produced by seven European dance festivals under the umbrella of Big Pulse Dance Alliance, Siguifin is travelling beyond the borders of West Africa. Similarly, the borders between styles that Dianor first experienced over 20 years ago are diminishing and different dance styles come naturally to this young generation of dancers.
“They can do traditional or contemporary or hip-hop. Actually, when we put it all on stage, it became like a new language. It’s their own vocabulary because there are no more lines between different movements or styles. We don’t see traditional dance or hip-hop, we just see the dancers as human beings. And that is the modern person. They have bits of everything inside them.”
Siguin runs on May 17th and 18th at Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Dance Festival. More information at dublindancefestival.ie.