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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Choreographic encounters of the east African kind
Gerry Turvey reports back on a project that took place in Nairobi, September 2004, that she describes as 'four weeks of a learning, giving, challenging, richly rewarding and totally stimulating experience'
Between January and May 2001 I worked with a group of young dancers in Nairobi with a bursary from UNESCO. Following this in December 2002 and January 2003 I ran a similar project in Kampala Uganda, and also with Makerere University Dance and Drama dept. I also returned to Kenya for a short visit, where I clearly saw some development: dance was not only growing and strengthening, but they had formed their own company 'The African Arts Ensemble'. My recent visit in September 2004 was to continue and develop the work, to record, write and document the project, and to look at the aims and aspirations of the East African dancers.

While Kenya is a culture rich in difference traditional dance forms, contemporary dance is in its infancy. There is a strong tradition from the Massi people of tribal dancing: this is by the men only with no music and using only the rhythm of their feet and the voice, the dance is very vibrant and colourful and is now very popular for the tourists. There are also many troops of performing acrobats and combining African Dance with acrobatics, heavily influenced by the Chinese acrobats who have visited. This is also very popular with tourists. The last six years have seen the emergence of contemporary dance, which has little or no place to compete for the tourists and seems marginalised. This new artform is a fresh shoot emerging, slowly gaining momentum, growing, and finding its own place. It now needs feeding and nurturing in order to grow and blossom. It is so new and different that even in a culture rich in dance forms, people are still not sure how to respond to it.

Encounters 04:
During the first two weeks I participated in The Encounters Festival a workshop and performance exchange with dancers from many African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Tanzania The Congo and South Africa. This proved to be an amazing mix of people and ideas; techniques and skills were shared discussed and explored. It was a wonderful opportunity to teach such a rich mix of cultures and to witness the range of performances and choreographic skills. The performances were well attended by a very appreciative audience, and it is this enthusiasm that needs guiding and nurturing. Some choreography and technical abilities were clearly underdeveloped; while countries with longer history in contemporary dance showed more sophisticated choreography, it was notable that those from East Africa with less background in the artform came across as more raw, elemental, and lacking in structure. This is an area that with some guidance will change, and will emerge within a contemporary dance context in its own unique cultural style.

Kenyan Encounters:
During the following two weeks in Nairobi, I ran a workshop, comprising of open class in the morning and intensive choreographic sessions in the afternoons, culminating in a small sharing of the ideas. The whole event took place at the GoDown Arts Centre, a massive open warehouse located in the industrial area of Nairobi. A series of old workshops converted into artist's studios offices and two dance spaces. The dance space has open walls and is surrounded by sculptors, painters, musicians; add to that the acrobats next door and you have a rich creative environment with open access and exchange. Some artists attended the open classes and had input into the workshops. This ability to easily cross art forms and be creative on many levels allows for greater freedom in making work and is a fundamentally different approach to how we separate and segregate our Art forms.

Communication and facilitation of the learning process was challenging on many levels. As a teacher I aim to foster understanding, self-development, and openness to question. The rigid Kenyan education system at times makes it harder for people to fully trust that there is another way. This in turn, due to lack of questioning and feedback, sometimes made it at times hard for me to trust that I was going in the right direction.

Contemporary dance is new and fresh, and coming in a culture already rich in dance forms, should perhaps require a different approach to teaching and training. It is easy to want too much too soon, and impose preconceived ideas and notions of what should be expected in contemporary dance. At this point it seems useful to offer suggestions, seeds, ideas, and then let the germination process take its natural path. It was also clear to me as a teacher and facilitator, through observation and discussion with some of the dancers, that I needed to approach my work in a manner that could allow that to happen, challenging my methods of communication, and supposition within a Western culture. This proved to be a personal daily challenge, and I found myself constantly adjusting and readjusting my thoughts, ideas and processes.

What the Dancers said:
Following the results of an interview/questionnaire with the dancers, all of them acknowledged similar desires, concerns and dreams for future development:

  • Most had been involved with Contemporary dance for four-six years, from the time that Garra Dance Co run by Opyio Okach was formed
  • They were all committed to having dance as a central part of their lives
  • They all stated that dancing had changed their lives, opened new horizons, and crossed cultural borders
  • Many stated that contemporary dance gave them more ability to be expressive and creative as an artist than did the more traditional forms of African dance
  • Statements were made about lack of training, that it was insufficient and sporadic. Often dancers have had to travel in order to train (this was also seen as a positive)
  • There is a lack of role models for the work and lack of peers and counterparts to inspire and exchange with
  • Space to work, train and play are limited as are recourses, funding and administrative assistance
  • There is a limited and underdeveloped audience for dance (which can be seen as a positive, as this can be developed alongside the dance/choreography)
  • All of them agreed that it was vital to keep the African culture as a root for the contemporary dance work. Not only is it there anyway, but also allows for a sense of identity and ownership of a new artform
  • An interesting cultural concept is the lack of women involved in dance, those that are (with a few exceptions) have less confidence than the men. Women dancing are perceived to be 'masculine', pretty much the reverse to the Western stereotypical notion that men dancing are 'effeminate'.

Future Developments?
What needs to be implemented from now, in order to help the dancers address their issues and develop dance in the most fruitful way? Training and development seem to be the major issues, and these are starting to be addressed. The British Council have been introduced to the new projects there and have expressed an interest for future projects (with a possibility of an exchange with RJC Dance). CandoCo Dance will visit Nairobi in April 2005, opening up new and different concepts of contemporary dance. The GoDown Centre, Ford Foundation and Garra Productions are all in support of training programmes, and a UNESCO bursary yearly funds a six week residency from Europe. Slowly but surely contemporary dance is finding its place.

These experiences have changed my life and attitude to my work, it has also allowed me to be part of an exciting adventure, and close to another culture. Hopefully the exchange has also helped to change the life of some of the Dancers in E Africa and opened new avenues for them to explore further in their own way.

East African Dance needs feeding, space to grow, time, sensitive input, development and nurturing. It is an exciting moment, watch this space, this baby is going to grow into something amazing!

Gerry Turvey is an independant dancer, teacher and choreographer. Contact or visit for more information.

Encounters was funded by French Cultural Centre, Garra Productions, Alliance Francais, Italian Inst. of Culture, Ford Foundation and The GoDown, and is due to happen annually; Gerry Turvey was funded by The Lisa Ullmann Travel Scholarship Fund and the Oppenheim- John Downes Memorial Trust Fund with special thanks to Dance UK.

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Animated: Winter 2005