TOUBAB DIALAW, Senegal — The glow of a tobacco pipe illuminates the stage before dancer Germaine Acogny begins to move. She uses a simple black cloth to portray her many identities: African, creator, mother, mystic and object of desire.
At 73, Acogny commands attention with a movement as simple as a turn of the wrist. A new film about her dance career, along with this solo piece choreographed just for her, are deepening her mark on the next generation of African dancers.
“She’s like the lighthouse at the sea,” said Mohamed Y. Shika, a 28-year-old Egyptian dancer and one of her students. “You know when you’re at sea and you can’t see anything and you see this light coming from so far, and this is the track you should keep on going for, I think this is Mama Germaine.”
Acogny is best known for fusing West African and modern dance. She has been sharing her decades-old technique with young artists from across the continent at L’Ecole des Sables, French for the School of Sands, in a remote fishing village in Senegal.
Dance is the mother of all arts, she says. The new film about her career, “Iya Tunde: The Mother Came Back,” was released in May as Dakar’s French Institute dedicated a festival to her.
“The greatest influence on me has been the traditional dances of my country. It’s that which gave me ideas, it’s my influence, it’s that which is my roots and it’s that which is at my base,” Acogny told The Associated Press. “If you don’t know well where you come from, you will not go far.”
She grew up embracing tradition while challenging traditional roles in West African society.
“I’m Christian, I’m Muslim and I’m animist,” she said.
Born in Benin, she was raised in Senegal. She divorced her husband at 23 after refusing his request for a second wife. To feed her two children, she opened a dance studio for young girls.
From there, Senegal’s then-President Leopold Sedar Senghor and French-born choreographer Maurice Bejart appointed her to direct the Mudra Afrique, a school opened in 1977 to train contemporary dancers. When it closed she moved to Europe, where she met her husband, Helmut Vogt.
They returned to Senegal and eventually founded Ecole des Sables, whose rural isolation complimented Acogny’s work: rooted in nature, using the baobab, sun and moon as guides. She also founded a dance company, Jant-Bi, and won a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award.
Students from across Africa come for months at a time to explore their lives as artists, a rarity on a continent where dance is more tradition than profession. They learn the Acogny technique, share their own traditional dances and are taught contemporary dance by visiting international artists. The hope is they return home to develop their art while fostering local support.
Kadidja Tiemanta, a 25-year-old from Mali, soon will go back and teach others.
It’s not easy to be a professional dancer in Africa, Tiemanta said. “It’s an important space here to have the opportunity here to express ourselves.”
The school, however, is threatened by a funding loss. And now Acogny is leaving it in the hands of her son Patrick as she prepares for a tour of the United States and Europe.
She will perform “Mon Elue Noire,” or “My Elected Black Maiden,” choreographed by France’s Ballet du Nord director Olivier Dubois as part of a series of works he plans to make for various artists set to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The dark, powerful dance touches on colonialism and embraces Acogny’s life.
She laughs, talks to the audience, spreads her legs, shakes her hips, raises her fist and eventually lowers herself into a black box, slapping it with white paint that later appears to cascade from her body as if she’s giving birth. Smoke envelopes her, and she disappears.
“She’s carrying this status of woman, the status of a black woman, the status of a black legend, the status of the weight of history, the bright and the dark one,” Dubois said.
Dubois praised Acogny’s diverse contributions to dance.
“She never gave up. And she is 73 and she started very young, and she gave the chance to the African dance community to exist anywhere,” he said. “She’s carrying history, but she’s giving perspective for the future already. And that’s quite unique.”
L’Ecole des Sables: http://ecoledessables.org/en/lecole/
Iya Tunde: https://vimeo.com/219708651
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