Most choreographers would be pleased with a performance that kept their public happy for a couple of hours.
Germaine Acogny wants to transform audiences’ lives.
With her latest work, Fagaala, the Senegalese choreographer has put together a cross-cultural experiment with a message for the world.
A collaboration with Japanese choreographer Kota Yamazaki, Fagaala combines traditional African dance and butoh, the freeform dance style that originated in post-World War II Japan.
But it takes its inspiration from something decidedly darker.
I read a book by Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop about the genocide in Rwanda, Acogny said. Diop’s novel, Murambi, Le Livre Des Ossements, (Murambi, The Book Of Bones), examines the massacres in the central African nation that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in 1994.
When I read the book I was shocked by what had happened and that I myself might have been among the killers. It’s something that’s in us and that we absolutely must try to stamp out and fight.
Acogny, a professional dancer for more than 40 years, had to step away from Africa to find the final spark for the project that became Fagaala -“ or genocide in Senegalese language Wolof.
Just at the same time as I finished reading the novel [in 2001], we were invited to Japan and some contacts gave us the details of several Japanese choreographers, Acogny said.
We met several, and I saw in Kota Yamazaki’s work both contemporary elements and tradition.
Kota was also interested in working in relation to Africa, and he decided to come to Senegal [in 2002]. He met our dancers, and it was extraordinary.
Yamazaki stayed on at L’?ole des Sables, the African dance training centre Acogny established in Senegal in the 1990s.
We created Fagaala by living and working together and by exchanging, Acogny, 61, said.
Despite moments of cross-cultural crisis, the pair found a connection.
There were extremely difficult times, where I felt Kota could have killed me with his eyes, and I felt like hitting him, Acogny admitted.
Or sometimes I would explain things to Kota for two hours, and he seemed to agree. And then, after two hours, he would say, -˜Why are we doing this?’ And I had to start explaining all over again.
But I later learned that for him, collaboration is in fact a sort of struggle -“ but a very polite one of course.
We found similarities between traditional African dance and butoh. African dance is all about transformation, like butoh in Japan.
Acogny and Yamazaki have developed Fagaala over the past four years, taking the show to Europe, the United States and, most recently, Melbourne, where it played at the city’s International Arts Festival.
The all-male work is the second project from Compagnie Jant-Bi, the African dance troupe Acogny formed in 1998 with dancers who had trained at L’?ole des Sables.
It continues a proud tradition of cross-cultural exploration for Acogny, who was born in Benin in west Africa, moved to Senegal as a child, and has since lived in Africa and France.
I always try to work with different cultures. It’s an open window on the world, she said.
Seven dancers -“ six from Senegal and one from Ivory Coast -“ take to the stage in Fagaala, which opened at the Sydney Opera House this week.
The piece is a meditation on the suffering, the horror and the screams of pain of the Rwandan genocide, Acogny said.
The show’s stark visuals -“ a bare-chested man apparently spouting blood or dancers with heads swathed in ghostly fabric -“ add to the solemn tone.
Yet there’s room for hope amid the gloom, if the audience reaction at Fagaala‘s premiere in Senegal a couple of years back is any guide.
The people came and they sat down and they didn’t move, Acogny said.
Kota asked me, -˜What’s happening? Do they understand what’s going on? Do they like it?’
I laughed and told him they were astounded. They were the first audience that understood the show.
Acogny is hopeful Sydney audiences are as receptive.
I specifically chose Rwanda, because what’s specific becomes universal, she said.
It’s to make every human being aware that we have to be careful of the instinct that is in us. I also want this show to tell everyone that genocide throughout the world must stop.
Fagaala is on at the Sydney Opera House until 29 October. For bookings call 9250 7777 or visit the Sydney Opera House website.