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Animated Edition - Autumn 2005
Critical faculties
Leaving his pith helmet at home, Donald Hutera heads off to Kenya to get to grips with contemporary dance.
No elephants or zebras, and not a single gazelle or baboon. What kind of African trip was this?

Sprawled on my bed in Nairobi's venerable old Norfolk Hotel each evening, I scarcely had the mental energy to ask the question. I was too tuckered out by my packed schedule as the facilitator of a six-day dance journalism course to seriously pine for an intimate encounter with a hungry lion or wandering wildebeest. I was on a different sort of safari, in which the biggest game being hunted was the words you'd use in speech or print to describe and critique a dance.

How did I get this shot at becoming the Karen Blixen of 21st-century African dance? In late July the British Council sent me to Kenya to do my bit to help beef up press coverage of the art form, particularly in its contemporary incarnation. The expectation was of nothing immediately radical. That is to say, overnight headlines along the lines of 'Modern dance changes lives!' or 'New-style barefoot moves supplant tradition' were unlikely to happen even in a nation as absorbed in the press as Kenya. Instead, this was a laying of groundwork for the future.

My visit was timed to coincide with the 2005 edition of Dance Encounters Nairobi, a young festival curated by choreographer Opiyo Okach and managed by the multi-disciplinary GoDown Arts Centre. "Tradition alone cannot represent all that we are" Okach said, describing the impetus behind Encounters. Performances by a range of festival artists - hailing from Mali, South Africa, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Italy and Canada as well as Kenya - were staged at the GoDown every other night.

Daytimes I was meeting with the participants of my course, either at the GoDown or in the British Council's spanking new headquarters up on a hill maybe a quarter-hour away. If I sound geographically vague, it's because I never quite got a handle on Nairobi. To me the best way to learn about a place is to rub shoulders with the locals, breathe their air, lay some shoe leather down on their streets, shop where they shop and brave their public transport. Well, none of that happened in this sprawling metropolis of between a million and a half and three million people. (The figure seems to depend on how big an area you define as Nairobi.) I was driven everywhere I needed to go. This was largely practical. There was no time to sightsee, let alone to have a leisurely stroll. Plus I was universally advised not to go out alone, especially at night. Consequently I don't think I walked more than three blocks during nearly a week in Nairobi, if that.

I'm not complaining. I was in Kenya on a mission, and one that taught me a good deal about a country, a culture, several handfuls of individuals and myself.

I'm not a trained teacher, but I guess I've had enough experience watching, writing and talking about dance that people are willing to invest in my ability to share knowledge and stimulate thought. Drawn mostly from local journalism and schools, the course participants gradually revealed themselves to be as hungry for cultural investigation and exchange as I was. I tried to tailor our encounters to what I felt they most needed or wanted. Although amongst a group of about fifteen there was a general lack of familiarity with contemporary dance, this yielded fresh sources of debate. It was also a valuable reminder of the importance of taking nothing for granted when conducting this sort of activity. Which means that Merce Cunningham, for example, is not a global household name.

While I can't claim any great innovation in running a dance journalism workshop, the air of informality and enquiry I tried to whip up seemed to be appreciated. I know I had a rewarding time. We talked and read, took in performances and talked some more. Along with a plethora of sample reviews, previews and other generally useful handouts, I came prepared with a handful of video/DVDs of dance performances, dance made for the camera and even a Hollywood musical. (Thank you Robert Hylton, Shobana Jeyasingh and Emio Greco, among others.) We also had ample opportunity to meet artists, technicians and, unexpectedly, the director of a European dance festival, and to sit in on dance workshops. All of this the group soaked up. Had my visit been longer they might've done more writing, but I believe a key to 'managing' any art form is the ability to first speak about it with a degree of confidence. On that score it was gratifying to note that, by the third day, the participants' powers of observation and levels of comfort in talking about contemporary dance had increased. Well before the course ended, it was plain that it could have easily run longer.

I can see the headline now: 'Dance journalism workshop has legs!' as they say in show business, if not out on the savannah. But just wait till my next trip.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the Autumn 2003 and Summer 2005 editions of Animated.

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Animated: Autumn 2005