Postcards From Africa: Artists Working Here and Far

By Julie Potter


Shuttling from the Bay Area to disparate regions of Africa, dance professionals Janice Garrett, Byb Bibene Chanel, Kristine Elliott and Joti Singh use the art form to power exchange. Their trips with four distinct missions all share the thread of reciprocal learning and the body as a channel for communication and empowerment.

Janice Garrett, Co-Director, Garrett + Moulton Productions: Uganda
“We had a real interest in forms that facilitate people working very closely together and dancing is that at its best. Dance is something where people are capable of feeling each other and working together in a tight ensemble.”

The serendipitous impact of seeing War Dance, a documentary about the trauma of children who live in a refugee camp and their healing through music and dance, reading about civil strife in countries bordering Uganda and connecting with a friend who started the Stand Tall Primary School on the outskirts of Kampala compelled Janice Garrett to work with ninety students at that junior high. Garrett visited for a month in October with composer and musician Christopher Benstead employing an approach which emerged from The Ball Passing Project: a community art form that demonstrates how cooperation creates a complex and interdependent structure. The Ball Passing Project stems from a dance created by Charles Moulton, during which performers arranged on tiered platforms pass colored Nerf balls in intricate patterns. At the Stand Tall Primary School, the idea was to explore what the kids could do with movement and music to facilitate learning how to work cooperatively and see themselves as interdependent and connected with one another.

“Ball passing and the movement choir are designed to be done when people are attuned and working as a team. Therefore, we shared these forms with the kids to engender a sense of working as a collective, as a community together, to establish a connection with one another,” says Garrett, adding “The idea that things can be ordered, precise, predictable, repeatable, and that there’s a reason to build upon that order in a group together is really affecting a part of their social consciousness in certain ways.” In addition to ball passing and movement choir approaches, the group worked in a circle and participated in rhythm and movement exercises to create something themselves, thus encouraging individual voices. A baseline beginning and structured games provided the starting points for making.

“To see the children and the light in their eyes–these are kids who are thrilled to be in school. They do not take this for granted at all. They know how precious it is to receive an education. There’s a fantastic sense of appreciation for what’s being offered and that was incredibly moving to me. These children recognize the gift that they are receiving. They are hungry for that experience,” Garrett comments. She found that at the end of the school day, the students did not want to go home and would walk back at the last possible moment, just as night fell. Because many families in Uganda are unable to pay for the books and uniforms that the schools require, numerous children go without education. It’s a few hundred dollars, which for many, amounts to a high percentage of the family income.

Moving forward, Garrett hopes to continue a process with the school to develop a sponsorship program for the first class of 20 graduates to attend high school. “The feeling I have is that the work in Uganda showed up on the path of my life,” says Garrett. “I want to encourage others to reach out in the world; to really respond to what may come along. To want to be touched by people and circumstances–we have a lot to give. We all have these opportunities.”

Byb Chanel Bibene, Artistic Director, Kiandanda Dance Theater: Democratic Republic of Congo
“Notice how we write with the body by creating a vocabulary. There is a way in the Congo for this writing. I invite people to come with me and inspire our way of trying to expand the vocabulary. That’s what the program is about.”

Last time Byb Chanel Bibene visited his native Democratic of Congo, he developed a dance film called Devil in the Hills. For this project, Bibene worked with dancers and conducted interviews to capture the life experiences of those living with a delicate political situation and corruption. In this context, Bibene sees dance as a way to move toward a more open dialogue. He returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo on a regular basis eager to research the contemporary social issues and encourage communication through the body. “What is African dance? Is it Africans dancing? What is Congolese dance? Each tribe has a very different style,” Bibene comments.

“We don’t have dance schools, we have parties for dancing. It’s something we learn from our elders. It happens on the streets, in public places, the neighborhood. The dance is different for each tribe. I came to dance through the tribe and popular dance. That’s our main training,” says Bibene. “We also got the American influence of hip hop. There was Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Madonna, and also vogueing.” Before concentrating on dance, Bibene studied acting in high school. Later he studied contemporary, classical and modern dance at academy schools in Europe and now invites choreographers to Congo to teach workshops for his program and research initiative, De la Programme. He hopes to eventually have a dedicated space for dance, and continues to fundraise. While he does invite people to his country to work as professional dancers, he acknowledges that where he is from dance is meshed into daily life–it serves as a ritual and has meaning.

Kristine Elliott, Dance Professor, Stanford University: South Africa
“It’s kind of an irony and an interesting look to see how ballet bridges cultures. It’s a universal language that around the world you place your left hand on the bar and do grande pliés in first position.”

Since 2004 Kristine Elliott has been teaching ballet in Atlan, a township of South Africa beginning simply in a classroom with a cassette player, and growing her team each year with artists from LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professionals). “The thing that strikes me is the way that classical ballet training is important. It makes those kids stand up with a sense of pride. They have to take care of their bodies. It’s a good idea to care about what they eat and have self pride, and it translates into a lust for life, for being alive,” said Elliott, adding “It’s a pretty tough place to survive. They don’t really look to the future in terms of living a long life. The more pride that they feel about themselves the more they feel that life is precious and to get that from their community and it comes from standing up as a dancer.”

Elliott’s has made a huge impact, opening eyes and horizons. “I am just one person and sometimes I get overwhelmed with so much hardship and poverty and the effect of AIDS, disease and the living conditions. I still believe that one by one we can help,” she says. In addition to teaching skills transferrable to life, students of hers blossomed into professional dancers working with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, The Lion King and Ballet Rambert. “What’s marvelous of the program is that those kids have somewhere to go everyday where excellence is demanded of them and where they’re expected to show up and have discipline and be on time.”

This past year, Elliott brought Amy Seiwert’s choreography to her students in South Africa. “I set the ballet on the music with the exact intention of Amy’s work. When it was finished I looked at it and said ‘This is new!’ It had an African energy that changed the art–adding and giving its own voice. It’s a wonderful exchange,” comments Elliott, referencing the fierce bright attack of the movement. At Stanford, Elliott encourages her students to take their skills and dancing and to help the world. She concludes “It’s important to know life is precious and it’s worthwhile to stand up; that there are dreams that can come true and dance can help in that.”

Joti Singh, Artistic Director, Duniya Dance and Drum Company: Guinea
“The community living really left an impression on me–how much time the people spent together and outside, how much time they don’t spend by themselves.”

In December, for the second time, Joti Singh led students and artists to Guinea to better understand the art tradition in context. There, the group participated in a few busy weeks of dance and drum classes and with a heavy dose of Guinean culture. Singh visited the country for the first time in 2003 with a college dance teacher and her current trips are about meeting people there, life in the community and the culture. “We see it as an exchange. People are generally really changed by the experience, because of how different life is over there. They realize how little the people have materially but how rich they are culturally.”

Singh is looking to purchase land and start a community center. She envisions a hub of resources where people can help themselves even after Singh’s group has gone, hoping for a place for people can stay, take class, learn an instrument, a language or financial literacy. A computer center there would also allow visitors to learn additional skills and push ahead. “People are really motivated and smart and there’s just no economy there. It’s really hard. There are trained medical doctors who work for cell phone companies, people go to school and there are no jobs.”

Speaking to the role of dance in this society, Singh notes that when Guinea became an independent country from the French in 1958, the first president created a national ballet and traditional arts were cultivated. Every neighborhood has a ballet or dance group for performances at ceremonies or weddings. “People aren’t shy about dancing in the same way they are here. They do it from a young age. If you go to a party or a club, everyone is dancing. There are some families that don’t want their kids to go into dance and recommend what they see as more serious subject like law or engineering. There are others who decide to dance to get out of the country and come to the U.S. or Europe. It has become this ticket out in a way.”

This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.