Let me begin by telling you a short story, it is a French rhetoric. One day a Dove and a Hawk were involved in a friendly banter of who had the most beautiful voice for singing, the Dove sang with a subtle and gentle voice, one that sounded like the recovery of long distant memory. A kind of mystery that could be perceived at the beginning of fall. Then the Hawk began her song, it arrived with a different kind of aroma, very present and deep, in opposition to the subtlety and tenderness of the Dove, just like the harsh, throaty cry of a duck.
In essence, they were both involved in the definition of beauty, of beauty in art, of what is honest, what is nature, what is organic or inorganic to an extent that it moves us. As they went further in their argument, they sighted a pig coming their way, so they decided to sing for the pig to judge whose voice is the most beautiful. They both sang again and eventually the pig proclaimed that the Hawk sang most beautifully. The pig then asked the dove in a witty tone “are you sad that the hawk was better?” and she replied “I am not sad that her voice sounded better than mine. I’m just a bit bothered that it was a swine who judged me.” The problem with the pig’s judgement is not that it was biased but based on what rules of beauty. Whose responsibility is it to give meaning and ideal form to beauty in art? I don’t think we will ever reconcile between art and the many commentaries linked to art, because the commentaries are usually full of social and political void that can never be filled or recompensed by art itself.
The sole moment when the question of judgement comes to mind in the contemporary African dance community, will be linked to the African and Indian Ocean choreographic encounters, powered by the French ministry of foreign affairs. This occasion could be compared to the African cup of nation for the contemporary African dance community. Only that unlike the soccer game, it is much easier to declare a winner at the end of each game. How then do we announce a winner in the case of dance performances, coming from totally different nations or individual choreographers? Although this festival has raised a lot of controversies - within the circle of professionals, both in Africa and abroad during the past years - nonetheless, there is more meaning to this impressive gathering beyond and above the generosity or damage of the French foreign policy. The bi-annual festival has gained the place of the most significant podium, for projecting not just the splendour and best works of contemporary African choreographers, it has also become ‘THE’ platform for emerging choreographers to confirm to us, the present state of choreographic thinking on the continent. A perfect manifestation for the resolution of standards, at which the players and policy-maker of contemporary African dance, establish the bar.
It is not enough to radically condemn or castigate such a project. Rather it is necessary to carefully place it on the table, to be weighed on different grounds, one that consciously knows what is coming in and also able to appreciate two worlds. Okaying the policy or not is a secondary issue. It is surely an initiative that must be supported by all proponents of contemporary dance in the African world without exception. For the past four editions of the festival, counting from “Sanga II” that took place in Madagascar in 2001, I have been a devotee to the progress of this development. I have paid careful attention to the quality of members of the jury and the ways at which works ware being judged.
Dancing in general –regardless the identity- is a contextual practice that cannot be look at without the context. In the same vein, we cannot just consider its context to ignore the dance. In judging contemporary works hailing from Africa, it is not enough to decorate the jury with African intellectuals whose competence is not the performing arts. It is not enough to consider European or African festival directors who sometimes programme works of African creators. It is not enough to have just dance practitioners or dance critics as members of the jury. At a crucial moment like this, the ability to thoroughly analyse in different terms is very useful, to know not just ‘what’ but also ‘how’ dance means, to understand dance as a non-verbal and non-literary, yet essential part of culture. How does dance make meaning? Where does it come from? What is it that is inside and outside the dance, which gives us a clue to its meaning?
We can all create meaning and definition from our various positions to say what contemporary art is or should be. One thing is certain, there are so many interpretations of contemporary art, and what’s so exciting about the trend is that we can view it from various angles and yet be accurate and remain stuck in our mis/interpretations. The art itself is a myth. No wonder there is no essential ‘contemporary African dance’. Based on this, those analysing it must have various minds about their role, which requires them to start with facts and not hallucinate out of what is absent or a minor aspect of the whole. They cannot just hold on to the narrative nature of history, but they must pay attention to individual stories and the fiction of what the artiste presently fashions. If a critic asked different essential questions, each answer will appear with different connections to a set of sub-questions to be re-answered by the judge.
For contemporary African dance to attain a considerable height, it has to be seen with both local and global eyes. Like every good art, it should be critiqued above the bias of racial differences and economic imbalance, above talent or lack of talent, it will not be acceptable that a banal piece of art, be recompensed out of pity for its coming from Africa, we must refuse to subscribe to any "I'm black and proud” institution that goes around, celebrating banners and flags. We must separate the game from the art and beware of those amongst us, who seeks to mortgage our future for their own gratification. There is no pride in a dance industry that is just a market place, yet to define its rules and ideologies that will favour the future of the practice. The pressure we should be presently putting on ourselves should be a debate of ideals, sorting out certain ethics that seek to reduce us to mediocre who lack logic, or a people who practises second-rate magic on stage. We should be aware of certain values that seek to reduce our thoughts and enchain our aspirations, so that our reflection about the world be limited to where our economic capabilities are levelled.
If we consider the aftermath of the encounter, which meant that winners will not just tour their works, but also represent the latest choreographic phase of contemporary Africa. It is then very important not to ignore the possibility of multiple meanings. If we take Pape Ibrahima N'Diaye (A.K.A Kaolack) –the current winner of the solo category - as a case study; let’s reconstruct a picture of how he moved, how he construct his discourse through a verbal mode –which is in French language. How does context and place or gathering change meaning? The “J’accuse” piece we saw in Tunis, which works with the theme of intra-African immigration and the possible racism that exists between black Africans and African Arabs. A piece with a rich and profound significance, due to the context of the gathering in May 2008. But the question is - did it have the same meaning at la Villette in Paris few months later? Then let’s also imagine the same piece performed in the USA or Brazil. Not to paradoxically deride the work of Kaolack or the judgement of the members of the jury, but simply suggesting that analysis and interpretation must be explicit and we must be very conscious of every aspect of our reality as a people of diverse background, that come together to make one, before taking such a critical decision.
There are four basic intertwined cognitive required in contextualising dance; observation, analysis, interpretation before we arrive at judgement. Any analysis of culture has to be able to allow for change and multiple juxtapositions, or else, what’s it for? If we buy into fixed ideologies and same pattern of judging from one edition to the other, if we remain to the ideas which say we are all constructed within culture from a certain point of view, there’s nowhere to go. We are stuck. However we could give way for a theory of culture that allows for change from within and not ‘elsewhere.’ The judges must realise that this is a tedious task for them. They are in the process of making meaning.
To take us back to the allegory of the pig, which also produces similar deep, guttural sounds without any suggestion of subtlety like that of the dove. This implies that meanings are usually created from individual and personal opinion or preference, which has little or nothing to do with the time and space occupied by the Dove. Therefore it could be accurate to suggest that the role of the pig was a kind of divinity and interventionist. As a creator of meaning, its responsibility was to make its decision meaningful and objective enough to those who will get this information tomorrow; our judges should endeavour to eliminate opinion of themselves and find as much information about their subjects before passing judgements.