Present, Past, Future
Meriel Sparkes, ADAD south west coordinator, talks with Idrissa Camara about the process of developing new work drawing from his traditional roots, and working with dancers from outside his culture, to create an African dance for a European audience.
It’s a wet and windy night in late June and Bristol Zoo is playing host to WOMAD’s warm up festival. The lions and penguins have long since gone to bed when Ballet Nimba explode onto the stage with dynamic energy, starting with Yankadi, a traditional courtship dance, moving through various excerpts of Bagatai, the piece on which they are working and will be premiering in the autumn and touring in spring 2013. The pouring rain seemed to only encourage the audience as they pressed ever closer to the stage. The drumming is of a quality very rare to find in the UK, provided by a combination of Guinean and Ivorian musicians who, as they confidently work the crowd, demonstrate just how far they have come since arriving in the UK. Nimba perform with not only percussionists but also ngoni, flute and a singer who presented with such an authentically Guinean presence on stage that I found it hard to believe when she explained to me, in a curious mixture of broad Trinidadian and Welsh accents, ‘I’m totally out of my comfort zone to be honest, normally I sing in Welsh!’
Ballet Nimba, under the directorship of Idrissa Camara, are a Guinean ballet company who have been in existence since only 2010. Since that time, starting from scratch with little knowledge of the UK dance world, they have produced and toured two pieces, Saiyama and Paya Paya; taking them to ADAD’s Bloom festivals in both Bristol and London and WOMAD’s main stages, amongst many others. They have also just released their first album and are on the brink of premiering their new work Bagatai (land of the Baga).
Idrissa travelled back to Guinea to research his current project and in his next piece will be exploring the history of the Baga people, to whom he belongs. Ballet Nimba’s manager, and wife of Idrissa, Lowri Myrddin Camara, explains that they intended to ‘document the dance and trace it’s evolution from the traditional to the modern, which is actually pretty far removed,’ and that they hope to continue this work researching and documenting the dance styles of Guinea.
When I manage to catch up with Idrissa after the show he tells me more about his intention and the journey he has been on to develop this work. The story running through his new piece is about how his people resisted attempts to destroy them in the early years of Guinean independence in 1958. It was thought by the ruling powers that the Baga posed a threat to the power of Guinea’s first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure. Ceremonial masks, very important cultural artefacts, were stolen from the Baga and taken to France and elders were beaten and killed ‘but that was not enough to destroy our identity, we are still developing our life, we are still developing our tribe and we are still developing our art. In fact when you look to today at the whole of Guinea I feel like my tribe’s art is more famous than we realise. So what I want to do is to show that story to the audience to bring the past into present. Without history there is no future.’
As part of his research, in keeping with the strong oral tradition of history keeping in Africa, Idrissa consulted the elders about the true facts of the story. ‘When I first came to them with the idea of the project I only had the story that I thought was true, it was the story I created for myself of my tribe, in fact it came to me in a dream but I knew it wasn’t a dream, it was real. I asked the elders and they were able to give me a lot of explanation about that story and I discovered that the dream I had was true. Because of this they were very open with me and gave me the answers to whatever I asked them.’
Central to Baga culture are the ceremonial masks, Idrissa explains that ‘four to five hundred years ago the Baga people came from Sudan to the Fouta Djallon [a highland area in Guinea]. In those times the Nimba mask was the protector of the village. My tribe, the Baga, are farmers and fishermen, before we go to the field or start to do anything we have to have a big celebration involving the Nimba mask and give some sacrifice and an explanation because we believe that the spirit of our ancestor is strong in that Nimba mask and that spirit will protect us from anything bad: it is the protector of the village, it is very powerful’.
‘The Sorsonné mask is different, it was about circumcision. In the circumcision place sometimes there are bad spirits that can affect the children. The celebration we do is different for this as we are protecting the life of the younger generation. They have to do the celebration before and after doing the circumcision.’
It is Sorsonné that Idrissa will be incorporating into his new work, as each mask also has a rhythm and a traditional dance that accompanies it, so I ask him how he decides which rhythms to use to convey a story that is both modern and political. ‘I use our mythology to try to explain the story in different ways because the masks are very powerful, when you see them you realise you can see something of yourself there. My new piece is about the time that something bad happened to my tribe; when somebody dies I feel that it is very serious. So although it is not about circumcision it is about the explanation of pain: if you don’t use Sorsonné there will be serious consequences for the children.’
Idrissa has managed to produce very high quality Guinean dance despite the fact that, at the time of writing, there are no other Guinean dancers in the company. When asked about how he found working with a diverse group of artists with different dance backgrounds, Idrissa explained ‘I work with African people, but from all over Africa, some are from the Caribbean, some are Ghanaian, some from Cote D’Ivoire or Senegal. So I have the potential, I have the right people to whom I can show what I want to do and what I want to develop and as soon as I give it to them they understand what I am doing. I have to teach them from the beginning but before we start to do anything I explain to them my idea of what we want to do and how we will incorporate the music and the story. Although the movement is all my own inspiration, when I give the dance to the women they are able to find their own style within that movement and do it beautifully in a way that I cannot. Sometimes when I teach to the men also I see that they are doing it in a different way than the way I am giving it and I can see that it is really, really beautiful so there is freedom in the movement.’
Idrissa’s relationship with his audience also drives the development of his work ‘I’m aware that I have a different audience in the UK, for the western audience I have to make sure that there is something that they can easily understand. In that way I feel that I am lucky because the audience seem to understand some of what I am talking about, maybe not all of it, but some of it, so I know I’m doing something right.’ This begs the question about how true to his roots Idrissa is staying or whether he feels he needs to contemporise his work in order to make it comprehensible to a western audience. ‘I want to try to include some contemporary or street dance but I really want to do it in a different way because I will never be better than someone who has trained in these dance forms from a very early age so I have to be sure that what I produce comes from me and is my own style.’ Idrissa has instead been able to incorporate solos within his work that demonstrate his dancer’s contemporary capabilities. He also had the opportunity to work with community based street dancers in Cardiff through the One Square Mile project and says that ‘for me it was a great experience because I had never done anything like that before. We were dancing to rap music but the root of the rhythm came from Africa and by explaining that, and explaining the song and the dance of that rhythm, the other dancers understood and enjoyed it more, that was really wonderful to be able to give them the explanation of what we were doing. I don’t think I will do street dance like the younger generation do now but I would like to be able to bring the different art forms together and to present something that people have never seen before.’
Bagatai will be performed at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on 28 and 29 September 2012.