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Existential Glamour: A German-Côte d’Ivoire performing arts dialogue (2010)

Franz Anton Cramer

For years we have been gotten used to defying various kinds of exoticism in the intercultural performing arts scene. Discourses soar high as to the impossibilities of truly presenting non-Western, extra-European performance in the global arts market without always already chewing up the specificities. Just as capitalism feeds on all that might hitherto have been (or have been considered to be) outside the realm of trade – feelings, atmospheres, habits, patterns – the international festival business transforms Otherness in just another gimmick.Such seems to be the elucidated theatre-goers frame of critical reference (or maybe critical frame of reference?). It insists on the fact that the gaze and the consumption habits of the Western style dominate all those gazes, experiences and dialogues that indeed originate elsewhere, that pursue other kinds of visibility, or that take a specific pleasure of their own. The so called post-colonial state of the art claims that any performance needs to pass or fail the test of Western neo-enlightened appreciation, be it academic or aesthetic. Much of the self-righteousness implicit in these power-driven perspectives does nothing else but to fortify the predominance of criteria issued by the very system that continuously seeks to find somewhere the Good Otherness of performance practices, without ever being able to fully accept them as what they are: incommensurate, superior, more free, self-defined etc. Post-colonial performance critique often seems to be trapped in a neurotic repetition of its own sufferance: Disenchanted with the own representational modes and deficiencies, remote places, performers, traditions, or styles are expected to bring fresh blood and energy. But they are then treated only to subdue their specificities and own-ness. This neurotic perpetuation ends up prolonging and indeed deepening the own discontent. That festival directors and resident artists criss-cross the globe in search for the new, the experiential, the direct, and the unquestioned does not hinder them at all to remain in their own concepts, concerns, and conflicts. The critical criticality of globalised performance-making turns out to be but a symptom of self-indulgence (of which Slavoj Zizek told us the secret: “Love your symptom as you love yourself”).Since approximately five years, a surprisingly un-neurotic and almost triumphant endeavour is developing in a frame that spans German producers, Ivory Coast performers (partly living in France and / or in Germany), a vivid but “hidden” culture of camp clubbing, commercial success, high-culture recognition and “Africa is the Future”-innuendos. A German theatre director (Monika Gintersdorfer of her name), a visual artist (Knut Klassen), a fashion designer (Abdoulaye Koue) are also part of the phenomenon. Meanwhile, the German Goethe-Institute has stepped in, and the prestigious (and stinking rich) German Cultural Foundation has accepted to be a sponsor for the 2010 edition of Abidjan mouvement, a festival spontaneously created in Abidjan last May. The productions will be presented in Berlin’sHaus der Kulturen der Welt and other places of wide recognition.

This project started small, however. Gintersdorfer had come to work with Franck Edmond Yao, a professional dancer from Abidjan who was sent to Paris and there quickly connected to the “Jet Set” group. This was a posh but highly important people with Ivory Coast origins, working in Paris and setting a new style of movement and urban culture, it was soon remarked under the name of “couper décaler”. This in-group culture involved dance moves, clubbing, public relations, live media work, and a big deal of snobism. Theatre director Monika Gintersdorfer, herself rather well established in the official theatre system, invited Yao and some other Ivory Coast performers, and together they tried to find a way of working together. Gotta Depri for instance, an ex-dancer with the highly commercial and exploitative “Afrika! Afrika!” show conceived by Austrian event manager André Heller and touring Europe with immense success, is a trained dancer in African styles. He and Gintersdorfer decided that their common project would be to find out what (European) contemporary dance was all about. Together with changing German actor-translators, Depri and his colleague Yao devised the performance series “Logobi”. In it, the concepts of Côte d’Ivoire dance cultures and the German practices of critical performativity are confronted in a vivid dialogue. So far, there are four editions of “Logobi”, a fifth one is in preparation. The entire series has been invited to the German Dance Platform, a biennial national meeting of outstanding dance work to be held in February 2010.

“Logobi” works simply but efficiently. Depri or Yao explain their vision of dance, the full illustrative, narrative, or traditional intent of any movement gesture, the multiple forms of integrating dance in every day culture. They talk about the virtuosity that is needed to dance, the fight you have to engage with the public so as to keep their attention. (“Everybody knows how to dance in our country. So you have to be really good in order to convince them to look at you!” Yao explains to his partner Laurent Chétouane in “Logobi 3”.) But the greatest mystery, we are told over and over, is the practice of what “white people”, “the Europeans” brought to African countries in a strange mission. “It does not mean a thing”, Gotta Depri claims in “Logobi 01”, performed together with German actor Hauke Heumann, “but they pay a lot of money to do it. So we started to engage in this thing they call ‘contemporary dance’ …”

However, Gintersdorfer insists, this difference made visual has nothing to do with authenticism. “One shouldn’t perceive of the Ivorians as bringing their matierla all ready made. We have had long periods of rehearsal, of trying out, of opening up the formalities contained in Ivorian dance culture so as to find out new systems of presentation. The fact that Franck and Gotta are constantly explaining what they are doing, that they integrate their gestural material in a discursive context has not at all been part of their artistic education.”

The background Depri, Yao and other dancers in the eleven pieces that have been proposed until now (and the seven works being planned for 2010!) bring is a quite conflictual, torn, but at the same time self-determined and glamorous one. Originating from Abidjan and forming part of the Ivorian diaspora in Paris and its suburbs, they make a living of their professional dancing in clubs and “soirées dansantes”, both in Paris and in Abidjan. Yao, who is also a musician and singer, has come to be a star (aka “Gadoukou la Star”). His explosive presence, his frightening self-assuredness, his cool exposure of sexiness, but foremost his brilliant acting and performing capacities make of him one of the lead-players in the Gintersdorfer/Klassen endeavour. This endeavour, without being outspoken or underlined by manifestoes, consists in reshuffling the relation between socially evolved and popularly invested performance practices and the (as I would call it myself) anaemic practice of contemporary dance and its self-reflexive concerns, its aesthetic insignificance and widespread lack of content.

However, even if the Gintersdorfer/Klassen shows seem to do away with all of the pettiness of subsidised formalisms prevalent in the bourgeois and consumerist arts milieu, the initiators present a convincing naiveté. “We never meant to comment on contemporary dance”, claims Gintersdorfer, “personally I didn’t even know what this was all about. My field of knowledge has been drama and theatre. It is only by working with the Ivory Coast people that I discovered all these complicated matters being discussed in the milieu. But really, my approach is theatrical. Had I met priests or truck-drivers, my project would have dealt with religion or car-mechanics.” Indeed, neither “Logobi” nor the more theatrical projects such as “Othello, c’est qui” or “7% Hamlet” come with any kind of missionary impulse. They do not want to convince us either of the deficiency of Western tradition, nor of the supremacy of West-African intensity. The project is basically concerned with a celebration – or let’s call it appreciation – of a specific style of performance with all of its ethnic investment. It celebrates the existential glamour that is a basis for urban adaptations of traditional movement practices. The project aims at presenting, and probably also highlighting the force, the immediacy and the expertise circulating in both the diaspora and the home-context in Abidjan.

The adaptation of Shakespeare dramas in this kind of inter-performative confrontation makes this fruitful clash even more urgent. Both in the Othello and the Hamlet project, the reality of Shakespearean motifs – the Ghost in Hamlet, the jealousy in Othello – in Ivorian contexts is at the core. As in African cultures there is a widespread reality of magic and spell, Shakespeare is read against the backdrop of how to detect “mystical realities” rather than dramatising dramaturgical ideas. How can you dare to threaten a Ghost, asks Yao in “7% Hamlet”, before you have tested his intentions? For there are many types of Ghosts, sorcerers, witches, and demons, all with their own agendas: magicians working for money, féticheurs working for their own good (and to the dismay of others), demons who are just evil and don’t pursue any goal etc. You have to pay attention to small details in order to find out whether you are dealing with a Ghost, and whether you should beware or not. Intermeshed in such demonstrations (including a horrific depiction of a person possessed by an evil spirit) are exchanges on religious beliefs, ethnic identity, serious work and similar big issues. The climax, though, is a dramatic praise by Franck Edmond Yao (always translated by Bernd Moss, his German colleague) of Hamlet’s efficiency to plan and pursue his revenge. He masters his feelings, he fools the world making them believe in his weakness, he leaves the country, he comes back, he makes other people accuse his uncle in his own stead, and, Yao exclaims, “He is so very cool” (“Il est très très fort, Hamlet !”). Hamlet, in this interpretation, is a winner, and thus a role model for combatants in the existential urban environment out of which performance styles emerge.

Likewise, in “Othello, c’est qui”, the question of ethnically mixed couples, Western sexuality and pornographic innuendos, gendered role models and the lack of honour for a black man holding hands with a white woman in public are interspersed in vivid re-enactments of how the jealousy thing was just the work of a demon, and how close would / could be the relations between jealousy, murder, exorcism and fatalism. All of these semi-improvised shows combine multiple translations, the linguistic translation being the most pertinent. For all presentations are in French, translated to German by the non-African colleagues. “What has been a big challenge for the Ivorians was to express themselves in words on issues like politics and religion. This has no tradition there, and it needed a lot of support – also from the part of the German translator-colleagues – to encourage them.”

However, the result of this process is striking as to the fervour and determination with which the social culture depicted in Gintersdorfer/Klaassen’s work is put against political turmoil, social injustice and even civil war. In the recent production “Très très fort” (premiered in full length in October 2009), the history of Ivory Coast, once the haven of wealth and prosperity in West Africa and for almost ten years ravaged by disputes and armed conflicts between different ethnic and economic clans, is presented as an entertainment show. It includes stand-up comedians, impersonations of political actors, accounts of how the young and the beautiful of Abidjan don’t fear the war but only the curfew because then they will be trapped between midnight and 5 a.m. in only one club and cannot show off their fantastic and costly outfits in several locations so as to duly impress their friends. The harsh critique on leading politicians of that time may be shrouded in humoristic clothes, it is extremely outspoken.

What started out to be just an experiment and a personal interest of a small group of people has turned out to be at the core of contemporary debates. Assimilation of HipHop into the high-art context is a tradition in France. But the focus there is on integrating popular culture in the spectacle context dear to a certain milieu; it is an upgrading. What Gintersdorfer/Klassen and their team are aiming at is quite different: It is a mise en abîme of enlightened criticality, starting not from the viewpoint of established aesthetics which might be enhanced, enlarged, complemented, or otherwise altered in status. Rather, it is about defying any kind of patronage or paternalism (some prefer to call it post-colonial complacency) by insisting on the very specificity of one’s own practice. Of course this does not go without the usual mechanisms of Western systems. Capitalism always absorbs otherness so as to make it a value. On the other hand: Why should the artists thus appreciated not take profit? Profit as in obtaining visa, having working permits, health insurance, and good payrolls? To the contrary, it seems to be a particularly sly way of reversing capitalist ways. To integrate the own expertise into a system that is ready to be surprised and feeds on all kinds of expertise makes total sense. But it is not a sense derived. It is a sense of its own – aesthetically calculated, as Gintersdorfer insists over and over again, but still artistically independent, cool, and specific. Just asLogobi, the title of the initial series, is also the name of a popular dance in Abidjan: a dance depicting maximal coolness and toughness of the dancer. It is a caricature of (male) power play. But from this very act of derision it draws its true power: That of staying aloof, alive, and affirmative while subverting the images it produces and the conditions in which they are produced. Decidedly, no neuroticism is involved here. Criticality can finally be at ease.

(published in Obscena # 25, May 2010; partly published in Mouvement, January – March 2010)

Posted by fac at 10/25/2010 02:56:00 PM 
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