Anani talks about his new work and his goals.
You've just presented ADJA, the new work in which you dance alongside Richard Adossou and the percussionist Ayaovi Kokousse. What's your initial reaction to this presentation?
I'm really pleased – pleased to have been able to complete this project and see the result of my own work, be it good or bad. It's only the start of one stage – there's still a good way to go and lots to say. It's a big responsibility. The main thing is that I've been able to put my ideas into practice and make sure that my project is feasible. This is a very important stage for me. I'm really grateful to the [Rolex Arts Initiative] for having given me the resources to make this dream come true, and to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker for having given me the Rosas space for this first performance.
Where did the inspiration for ADJA come from?
At the start it was an obsession. I wanted to use a form of contemporary expression to make the interaction between the musicians and dancers visible, the way you can see it in traditional dance celebrations. I wanted to examine how to interpret sounds using movements. This idea took shape in Benin, where the musicians are often the initiators. They begin by creating rhythms and sounds with their voices, and then they transform them into music. It's a process that comes from traditional customs… In ADJA I wanted to see how to interpret these "voice-sounds" and these rhythms, and I also wanted to show unity in divergence. Richard, the other dancer, and I were physically separated and at the same time we were united by Ayaovi, the musician. Ayaovi enables us to be united without being close to one another physically. We're linked more by a musical connection than a physical one. That's what happens sometimes in some traditional villages of the Evé, the ethnic group I come from.
What's the structure of ADJA?
The first part is written down, while the second isn't. There are sequences. Instead of a theme, there are words. There is no growing development. The piece is designed to be danced by four dancers. On the 13th [of November 2008] there were only two of us, but I still left a space between us, because, as I said, the musician is the link.
In the future I'd like to be able to put the show on again with a second musician and two additional dancers. Not just because the space would be full, but because the connection I want to show would be a lot more obvious then.
How was ADJA influenced by your mentoring year?
This year with Anne Teresa has been a huge help to me in understanding what I wanted to do, in deciding where I wanted to go with my work. At the start of the mentoring year I was filled with confusion and lacking in confidence. Anne Teresa felt that my work was too close to the stereotypes. At the start that destabilized me, but in the end it helped me to understand that I have my own language. The mentoring year has given me an artistic language. Now I know exactly where I want to go. This year has been of huge benefit to me. Even frustrations help you to grow!
How did Anne Teresa react to ADJA?
She found my work very "Anani", very honest, but she told me she didn't always understand my approach. And I'm thrilled by this reaction! What Anne Teresa does is very Western. I don't want to work in a Western way. As I understand it, she thinks ADJA lacks development. But I structured it in sections, not as a progression, which was very daring.
Why is the ADJA project so important to you?
The main one is that it meets a very strong need deep within me, a call. I have to respond to that call – it's a duty. ADJA is like starting to speak. I have to do it! If I didn't go on, it'd be like cutting off one of my arms or legs. I want to take this piece on to its end as it is contributing to the invention of a future creative process for dancers and for traditional musicians. For contemporary dance that comes from Africa.
What difficulties did you come up against while creating it?
I found it hard to be in the show as a dancer and at the same time outside it as a choreographer. I'm not mature enough for that yet. It's an issue I'd love to discuss with Anne Teresa, who often dances in her own creations.
You spent two months in Benin to develop your project. Why there?
Benin is a goldmine! There's so much to learn there. Tradition is still a major presence and young people respect it. Traditional music and dance are still fundamental values there and they're deeply rooted in everyday life – which is no longer really the case in Lomé, for example, where customs are tending to get lost in day-to-day living and in the artistic expression of dancers.
Would you like to be a mentor yourself?
Oh yes! After all, that's the aim of the Association Maahhooum/Cie Anani Dodji 07, my company in Senegal, where I'd like to develop the process of older people handing things down to the young. Young people today aren't really interested in tradition – they prefer technology. But I love the traditional world and I'd like to have a place where the elders can pass things on to the younger generation. The knowledge of the elders is nourishment!
Can you say a few words about the situation of dance in Africa?
In Africa there is a great lack of training to enable us to develop what we have. I see African dancers working in Europe, and though they've developed a lot technically, most of the time that kind of dancing doesn't fit with who we really are. Everyone is lying to themselves. It's not us.
The aim of ADJA is also to defend and develop the way we write in Africa. We come up against a lot of difficulties when trying to write using our own language. In this context the École des Sables, the international training centre for traditional and contemporary African dance set up by Germaine Acogny near Dakar, has awoken many things for many African dancers from this school. That's the direction I want to go in, in creating and expressing myself. We young people must go further.
That's why I want to set up a training centre to work with what we have ourselves, in Senegal or Togo.
I've often heard people say that if an African dancer didn't master the techniques of modern or classical dance he was often not regarded as a dancer. But I think we have our own ways of expressing ourselves, which are different, but authentic, and which just need to be recognized. I want to fight against these prejudices.
As regards my own work, the difficulty in Africa is that I haven't yet had time to present what I do properly. I need time to convince people. My aim is for dance coming from Africa to be recognized in Europe as dance as such, full stop – not as an ethnic form of dance. I want to get beyond technical qualifications and labels. It'll be hard, but it's the road I've chosen.
Finally, can you describe how you feel at this stage of your life?
I'm doing what I love. No compromises. I feel good in myself and with my dancing. And if I do have worries, I think positive and they push me forward! I have faith, and I have lots of dreams.