After some detours and thus somewhat later than planned we arrived at L’Ecole des Sables. Notwithstanding previous agreements we seem to arrive unannounced and to take the grounds by surprise. Anne Mbaye who is responsible for the administration very kindly shows us around and informs us on the history and the policy of L’Ecole des Sables / Jant-Bi foundation.
The school was initiated in 1998 by well-known dancer and choreographer Germaine Acogny and her husband Helmut Voigt. The first years it was located in the village of Toubab Dialaw, but after a few years they started constructing an infrastructure and buildings on an idyllic site overviewing the sea. There is a theatre, rehearsal spaces, residencies and even a restaurant.
Two remarkable things were mentioned: The first is that in the 1960s the notion of ‘contemporary dance’ (‘art dance’, academic dance) was totally unknown and underappreciated in Africa, where dance was being considered as a social event. As such it was / is mainly practised by women, whereas the ‘African contemporary dance’ is mainly done by men. Germaine Acogny has developed her own dance idiom and more or less invented African dance.
The second relevant remark was that this could only have happened through the stimulating support of president Senghor (1906 – 2001). Senghor in the 1960s and 1970s has been en pivotal figure in the development in Senegal of the contemporary arts at large.
If we consider the information we’ve received until now it’s hard to perceive and appreciate how the cultural climate and infrastructure would have been without him. Nevertheless under subsequent president the situation hasn’t improved. Hence the remark of Anne Mbaye: “In Senegal we don’t wait for the government anymore”.
As with the architecture school of Jean-Charles Tall, L’Ecole des Sables is a private enterprise. Financed by students, cultural funds (as the Prince Claus Fund), international NGOs and the EC. Aimed at professional education, practice and research that transfers traditional African expertise and knowledge into contemporary dance. And expanding with two touring ensembles (resp. male and female). And as such it is an important factor in the establishment and institutionalisation of African dance.
So, again we learn that an academic art form was introduced to traditional West African culture. But the two were estranged to one another for quite a while.
The question is: are they, can they or will they be integrated? Only if arts connect to the local or locality it seems. Another proof is the fact that Germaine Acogny has experienced that the most appropriate way to engage African women in contemporary dance is to work with the girls of the nearby village. And by winning their trust and that of the local community.
The way back to Dakar took us through marvellous urban sprawl, highly cultivated landscapes in sandy grey tones, splashed with colours of textile, fruits, advertisements and plastics.
Some of us jumped off at the house and studio of Aissa Dione to extend the conversation on her work, ambitions and projects that started in the morning in her huge workshop in Rufisque. “Textile is a drug”, she said after having offered dozens of samples of her textiles to our eyes and fingers.
Arno van Roosmalen