The inability to help

The Tamadia Dance Company from Burkina Faso on a stage of their hometown Bobo-Dioulasso

Alle Fotos: Helena Waldmann

Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in Africa and indeed the world. Despite a recent military coup, it is the venue for a dance festival that allows guests to gain deep insights into the mentalities of the African dance scene. On stage, people argue, dance, and forge new partnerships. Europe has funded this festival – so that it may approach the scene on an equal footing.

Drive through Bobo-Dioulasso

Burkina Faso witnessed its eighth military coup on January 24, 2022. That’s a lot of turmoil for a West African country that became independent from France in 1960. And that’s not counting four other failed coups. This arid country, battered by drought, corruption, and a gold mining industry dominated by Canadian companies, is groaning under regular attacks by jihadists from northern Mali. Military forces are needed to protect the predominantly Muslim population from radicalized warlords. And yet the waves they make continue to spill over the country’s dusty borders following the withdrawal of French troops from Mali.

Bobo-Dioulasso, a major trading city in southern Burkina Faso, is beset by the Islamist Katima Macina group. Rumors that it already controls the road to the capital are as common as those claiming that it is wreaking havoc in surrounding villages just a few kilometers from the city.

However, Bobo-Diolassou appears safe. The airport in the middle of town is considered its center or, alternatively, the second largest garrison in the country. The soldiers stationed here live behind a concrete wall reinforced with barbed wire along the old rail link to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s port city, and trade scrawny cattle and green beans from the north for fat fish from the Atlantic.

There is dancing in this garrison next to the railroad tracks. A couple from Europe are visiting: Anamaria Klajnšček from Slovenia, who was a member of a dance company in Mainz, Germany, and her partner Magí Serra from Barcelona. After the performance, they pose for photos with the commanders.

Dancing in a military camp is reminiscent of the frontline theater of the world wars, of “cultural entertainment for the troops” to support fighting units. In those days, theater was supposed to give the everyday lives of soldiers a civilized sheen in the face of the brutality of war and the soul-destroying boredom they experienced at quiet times while also offering a brief escape. Aguibou Bougobali-Sanou does not want to and cannot possibly know anything about such traditions.

He is a local dancer from Burkino Faso. Sporting dreadlocks and an always endearing smile, he wants, above all, to be a good host and to offer the European company as large an audience as possible. But where to find such an audience, if not in the barracks? At least two hundred soldiers in civilian attire await the dancing couple – the highlight of the small “In and Out” festival in Bobo-Dioulasso. Two hundred audience members: never would so many come to see dance in the “Les Bamboos” cultural center reserved for world music or the walled space of the Institut français, for example – and certainly not in the small courtyard of a library funded by Slovenia.

He is a local dancer from Burkino Faso. Sporting dreadlocks and an always endearing smile, he wants, above all, to be a good host and to offer the European company as large an audience as possible. But where to find such an audience, if not in the barracks? At least two hundred soldiers in civilian attire await the dancing couple – the highlight of the small “In and Out” festival in Bobo-Dioulasso. Two hundred audience members: never would so many come to see dance in the “Les Bamboos” cultural center reserved for world music or the walled space of the Institut français, for example – and certainly not in the small courtyard of a library funded by Slovenia.

Anamaria Klajnšček and Magí Serra dance in a simple building belonging to the garrison. They dance an ideal: that of equality, the balances of a partnership. The name of their company, Cossoc, is a neologism. “Cos” is the Catalan word for “body,” “sóc” means: “I am.” What is meant is the body, its search for balance, when Anamaria Klajnšček lifts her partner onto her shoulders and carries him, only for him to then let his partner sway dangerously back and forth just as high under the ceiling between the turning fans as she marvels at the world. In the process, their bodies are always tenderly intertwined.

The exercise lasts forty-five minutes, after which the Burkinabè soldiers are allowed to ask questions: Are they married? (which they answer in the negative). Does this piece mean anything? (“We are all equal,” they say). You can see from their faces how politely astonished they are – and that they were perhaps expecting more erotic allusions, closer to the dreams of the young men in their male-dominated barracks. But they are glad of the change from their drills and acknowledge the artistry and body control in the performance. Soon a comment is heard that the training to become a dancer must take much longer than that to become a soldier. Despite the lack of understanding of this art form, there is a respect.

In Africa, contemporary dance is seen as just another import from the West, intended to show that a rich Europe wants to help “Africa on an equal footing.” With contemporary dance? A joke – although almost all of the best-known African choreographers in Europe come from Burkina Faso. Serge-Aimé Coulibaly is one of them.

What follows on the next page is a report from West Africa, a digital book on a dance of conflicts that concern Africa far more than all the discussions about racism and decolonization that are usually held in rich societies.

Africa is not for the faint of heart

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Dance in Africa is more daring than elsewhere. Because no one helps no one. People also like to say: Africa is not for sausages. Because there is no funding, no insurance, hardly any audience. And yet the dance scene is professionalizing with giant strides. That’s why, when you visit Burkina Faso, you experience more than just drought and jihadists. You also experience the freedom that it means to make art here.

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