Intercultural Aesthetics

The projects described here share in common creation in the context of cultural exchange. Inevitably, categories fail miserably, for every creative collaboration is a form of cultural exchange and in one way or another “intercultural aesthetics” characterizes all aesthetic production.  Or as Ralph Lemon noted before his talk at Yale in 2011, “…perhaps a better word is para-cultural.”

{header} Friday, December 18, 2009 in New York, NY. © {photog} 2009, All Rights Reserved


© {photo by David Barreda} All Rights Reserved

Engagement Féminin / June & July 2014

At the invitation of Compagnie Auguste-Bienvenue, this July I taught for two weeks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso through the support of New York Live Art’s Suitcase Fund. The directors, Auguste Ouédraogo and Bienvenue Bazie, had invited me to teach for their initiative Engagement Féminin, which offers contemporary dance training to women from across West Africa. My role involved mentoring Mariam Traore and Aicha Kabore from Burkina Faso, Sena Abigail Atsugah from Ghana, and Aminata Traoré from the Côte d’Ivoire on the creation of their first solos.

Their invitation to me built on a history of artistic exchanges that Auguste and Bienvenue and I have cultivated over the past four years. The Suitcase Fund offered us invaluable support for the most effective kind of cross-cultural work–characterized as much by artistic exchange as extending working relationships, friendships, and understanding over time.

I first met Auguste and Bienvenue and became acquainted with Engagement Féminin in 2010, when I traveled to Burkina Faso to work with my frequent collaborator, Burkinabe artist Lacina Coulibaly (see below). In 2011, we were able to bring DANS UN S’Y METTRE, the all-female quartet Auguste and Bienvenue had choreographed for Engagement Féminin participants, to perform at Yale, sponsored by the World Performance Project and Yale Repertory Theatre. During their visit, Auguste taught a master class for our students and local artists, and we held a large group improvisation with dancers, musicians, and academics from the greater New York and Connecticut region. Theater posted a series of written reflections on the event. I have written additional essays about their work in the Huffington Post and in Theater. My visit this year marks our third exchange, and we hope there will be others.

Engagement Féminin addresses the absence of women in contemporary dance through summer training intensives exclusively for women. Their initiative remains the foremost concerted effort within Africa to promote the professionalizing of female dance artists. The project also undeniably contributes to the changing social and economic status of women in West African society. But this outcome remains implicitly embedded in the directors’ fundamental ambition, to impact the field of contemporary dance for the better.

For the first time this year, Auguste and Bienvenue added a new facet to the program, designed to foster emerging female choreographers. (Simultaneously, they were running a four-week training session for approximately 15 female dancers, in another space.) They invited four exceptional dancers to choreograph solos, through a four-week residency sponsored by Engagement Féminin. All four dancers had participated in past editions and had prior professional experience, of varying forms and degrees. The four choreographers were provided with studio space and active mentorship. Hence, my role as mentor was also new, and something we evolved together over the two weeks that I was there.

We worked for ten days total. I taught an atelier on choreographic composition for four to five hours daily, and the choreographers worked alone in the studio for four hours more. Auguste, Bienvenue, and Lacina also served as mentors and offered continued guidance after I left. During the choreographers’ solo time, we dropped by their studios to observe and talk if useful. After I left, the artists continued their residency for two more weeks.

Cie A-B has set a yearlong timeline for the completion of these works. Next summer, the choreographers will return to the CDC and add the full production components. I am eager to see how their solos continue to evolve. 

Each year, Auguste and Bienvenue cobble together the funding to support Engagement Féminin in the face of significant challenges. Their work has had an impact: a number of participants have gone on to have professional dance careers. The four emerging female choreographers Aicha, Mariam, Sena, and Aminata they are supporting not only have the potential to address the lack of women in contemporary dance in West Africa, but also worldwide. The absence of women choreographers in dance is an international problem. Compagnie Auguste-Bienvenue’s work in this area merits international attention and far steadier financial support.


Collaboration with Lacina Coulibaly / September 2007 – present

The goal of my ongoing, multi-sited research project with dancer-choreographer Lacina Coulibaly is to create shared spaces in the midst of cultural difference. Since 2007, we have been developing choreographic methods at the intersection of traditional and contemporary African dance, and neoclassical ballet and American postmodern dance. We create dances that honor these respective backgrounds and (already hybrid) traditions, while simultaneously establishing new spaces of cultural hybridity. We believe that by collaboratively authoring ways of moving together and places in which we both feel at home, we will have taken steps toward posing new spaces of encounter that do not ignore or completely ameliorate the fraught histories associated with our respective differences, so much as grant new possibilities for deepening human empathy and understanding. Our “intercultural aesthetics” looks backward and forward at once.

We have choreographed two dances to date: our duet, titled ICI OU AILLEURS/HERE OR ANYPLACE ELSE, and a new commission from Ballet Memphis at the invitation of Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther-Pugh titled OÙ QUE NOUS SOYONS/WHEREVER WE ARE, which premiered in Memphis in February 2011. Through textured compositions that explore our differences and similarities in matters of weight, energy, anatomy and performance style, our duet considers the spectrum of intimacy between individuals. We spent enormous time trying to understand and practice each other’s movement, mixing our predilections in ways not easy to parse out. Our Ballet Memphis piece extended this inquiry to consider the intimacy and human exchange that exists among groups and communities. With WHEREVER WE ARE, we expanded our research to include artists on both sides of the ocean by rehearsing in Ouagadougou and the U.S. Developing our material with Burkinabe dancers informed the quality of movement in one way; when we taught the material to Memphis dancers, another translation occurred.

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We are currently envisioning a third project with an international cast, which will enable us to bring together far-flung, diverse dancers into the same studio. In incorporating a mélange of dancers, social spaces, aesthetics and cultural influences, these pieces not only reflect our intercultural collaboration, but also aspects of the history of Memphis, New York City, and Ouagadougou, all cities where we have worked.

Our studio practice probes questions that have arisen over the course of our collaboration. These questions relate to definitions of “traditional” and “contemporary” dance, the delicate interplay at stake in a deliberately constructed hybrid aesthetic, and the histories these aesthetics kick up. The political arena is not the only realm where the specter of colonialism flares up, a deep wound that refuses to heal. In future work, we aim to continue investigating and challenging the dramatically varied ways of reading the juxtaposition of bodies so vastly different in size, skin color, gender, and nationality.

Stages of our choreographic development have occurred at Yale University; the Baryshnikov Arts Center and Duo Multicultural Arts Center in New York City; Stonybrook University; Irene Tassembo’s school EDIT and Salia ni Seydou’s Centre de Developpment Choreographique (CDC) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Memphis, TN and in Beckett, MA through a Jacob’s Pillow Creative Development Residency. We have presented versions of our duet at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (December 2009); New Haven’s Take Your Time Fall Festival (October 2010); the Movement Research Fall Festival at St. Mark’s Church (December 2010); Harvard University (2011); Cornell University (2012); ECA (Educational Center for the Arts) (2012); and premiered our group piece as part of the Ballet Memphis winter season (February 2011). We have received funding support from the World Performance Project, the BAC’s Martha Duffy Memorial Fellowship, and the Jacob’s Pillow CDR.