Spotlight on … Ballet Nimba
Ballet Nimba has started making ripples in the UK dance scene. Guinean-born Idrissa Camara, founder of this young Cardiff-based company talks to ADAD about his passions, influences and plans for Ballet Nimba’s futureWhen did you establish Ballet Nimba and what have been your major challenges in getting the company off the ground?
A year and a half ago I was working with SWICA (South Wales Intercultural Community Arts) and the director Steve Fletcher saw my potential and encouraged me to try for a small project grant, from The Arts Council of Wales. With Steve’s help and my wife Lowri, I put together my ideas for my first choreography here in the UK. The day I learned I had been successful in getting the funding was the same day my daughter Ariana was born so a really exciting day for us!
I had no idea how difficult it was to start a dance company here. I couldn’t find people to do the dance. There is no other African Dance company here in Wales and most community dancers found it too difficult, they said it was too energetic! Professional dancers didn’t really know me so wouldn’t audition for the project. Luckily in Bristol I had help from Rubba and Kirby from DMAC (Dance Music Arts Collective). I gave them my idea and they suggested people to work with. I was lucky to find some really good dancers, a mix of community and professional artists, but rehearsals were challenging. I was relying so much on the artists’ goodwill as I had so little money to pay them and this was frustrating. People often had other things to do or had to start late or leave early and this slowed down the creative process with me often having to go over the same thing again and again. It also makes it difficult to have discipline which is something which would be unquestioned in Guinea. As well as the dance side I was arranging all the live music and so decided to work with African musicians I had worked with previously so that I could trust them to give me the music I wanted. They were based all over the UK so this again was very challenging. These issues continue to be my main difficulties but the energy from the dancers helped me to believe in what am doing. I also believe that using such fantastic musicians is what makes Ballet Nimba’s performances special and so I continue to try and use the best talent I can.
Our first performance was in Cardiff, on the street! It was hard but an amazing feeling and the Arts Council liked it so much they invited me to meet with them. This year I received another small project grant and a training grant which I have used for learning more about dance in the UK and getting mentorship from established artists Bawren Tavaziva and Deborah Baddoo. As well as the support of the artists themselves, I have been helped so much by my wife with all the administration, web design, flyer design, promotion and marketing, all new to her and all done while she was on maternity leave! Steve also continues to be a valued advisor as well as Jeanette Bain-Burnett, ADAD Director, who supported my initial funding application, came to see my work, gave feedback and advice and the opportunity to perform at the Bloom Festival in Bristol.What are your passions and how are these embodied in your practice rooted, as it is, in Guinean dance forms?
I’m passionate about being an ambassador for my culture. I love my country and my tribes, their mythology and strong music and dance traditions. Les Ballets Africains du Guinee have toured the world since the 1950’s but Guinean dance is not well known here in the UK. I want to share my culture as we believe dancing makes you stronger, emotionally and physically. This is very important in Guinea to stay strong, for yourself, for your family, and to make people happy because life there is difficult. I love dance because I found it when there was nothing else in my life. It’s who I am and has given me all my opportunities. I meet people and I travel and it’s something to be proud of as an African, as a Guinean. I want people here to know our strength, our identity, how is Africa when there’s not war or trouble.Which artists have influenced your practice thus far?
My mentor in Africa, my teacher since I was 11 years old was Bangalli Bangoura former dancer with Les Ballets Africain. He and Lobilo Toure taught us in Ballet Bassikolo [Idrissa was a member of Ballet Bassikolo from 1991 to 2002] where under the direction of Badjibi Camara they trained us and disciplined us and inspired us. They were very strict, we would train many hours a day and there are always new young dancers coming wanting their opportunity, who want to work even harder and longer! I also admire Moustapha Bangoura who danced with Bangalli in Les Ballets Africains and is now based in USA. All three of us are from the Baga tribe, one of the smallest tribes in Guinea, but renowned for talented dancers. Nimba is the name of the Baga mask, the strong female protector spirit, the embodiment of femininity and fertility, the spirit of our ancestors. Italo Zambo and Hamidou Bangoura were choreographers of Ballets Africain and Ballet Joliba who I have admired very much, for their use of music, theatre, comedy, and dance. In Guinea we are very proud of our musical and dance traditions and their significance, they tell us our heritage, our backgrounds, our history.
Bawren Tavaziva was the first person who inspired me in this country. I have been to watch contemporary dance to understand how I fit in here, some I liked, some I didn’t, and some I didn’t understand. The first time I saw Tavaziva’s work it spoke to me as did the work of Alesandra Seutin. State of Emergency and Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre are other companies who have given me ideas about African-contemporary dance and contemporary-African dance!What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges facing African Peoples’ Dance in the UK, right now?
In Guinea we have more than 37 tribes with their own culture, dance, and music. All dances have their meaning, so it would be good to have Guinean dance be recognised as its own style rather than being always called African dance. I think outside of ADAD and other African dance companies, people think dance from Africa is all the same, and this means I have had a difficult time having what I do recognised as a professional dance form by some venues in Wales. They don’t recognise my work as dance theatre, or believe there’s no audience. Often in west Africa artists have not had good education and so this means it’s hard for us to promote ourselves here [in the UK] and access funding and support so we can change these attitudes. Also when you say traditional dance, they think this is something from the past, something which we have to make an effort to keep alive as with many traditional dances here. But if you go to the streets of Guinea this is the dance that young people are performing, at street parties, festivals. I want people to understand that this is traditional but in Guinea this is also contemporary, the energy the young people have there is amazing and our population like all of Africa is very young. Here you have street dance but all this comes from African dance. For me the UK is behind the rest of Europe and America when it comes to Guinean dance. There it’s very popular but here, too, people are now wanting to learn it more and more and this helps to develop audiences for professional performances. Can you tell us what audiences can expect from your upcoming performance at the ADAD Bloom Festival, London?
Beautiful Guinean music, high energy dancing, some storytelling, some masks. We have an amazing Fulani Flute player and the beautiful Ngoni a West African acoustic guitar. Of course there are the fantastic percussionists and some spectacular solo dances at the end! I hope it will make people look again at traditional dance, the piece is very traditional, but also see the origins of so many African-contemporary movement.What is your vision for Ballet Nimba over the next 5 years?
To get to the point where we can tour here in the UK and plan our research and development, and rehearsal time, so that we can properly pay our artists. This year we have already started working with a lighting designer and sound engineer which is a new experience for me. I want to keep working with my mentors and engaging with other artists and performances so that I can develop my work organically and at my own pace, as I myself, am evolving and changing simply by having to adopt a completely new culture and way of life! We want to develop the education side of Ballet Nimba and we would even hope to perform internationally if given the opportunity. I have never been good at scaling down my ambitions so I always want to aim high. So far we have started Ballet Nimba on very little money and actually achieved quite a lot, so anything’s possible!Ballet Nimba are performing as part of the ADAD Bloom Festival Mixed Bill evening performance at the Southbank Centre from 24 - 25 September (0844 8479910; southbankcentre.co.uk)