BY Charles Aubin in Opinion | 08 DEC 20

How Dancers Across Africa are Responding to Covid-19

In Letters from the Continent’, a new documentary by Studios Kabako, 21 performers in 17 countries offer powerful testimonies of how the pandemic has upended their lives

BY Charles Aubin in Opinion | 08 DEC 20

For Michael Disanka, a Congolese stage director, this year’s suspension of rehearsals, performance and touring has been anything but peaceful. ‘What’s the urge and the relevance of my artistic act after such a disaster?’ he asks, speaking directly to the camera in Letters from the Continent, an omnibus documentary film assembled by Studios Kabako. ‘What new borders will be added to the ones already in place? … How to go on living?’ Disanka is the co-director of a Kinshasa-based art collective called d’art d’art – whose name is a play on the French phrase ‘dare-dare,’ used when you want something done quickly. Nothing is dare-dare anymore in 2020. Not in European capitals nor in Kinshasa.

But in the frozen city there is still hope. Christiana Tabaro, Disanka’s partner and co-director of d’art d’art, answers his rhetorical questions by reciting from a letter she’s addressed to their future child. We’ll overcome, she tells the camera. She’s certain of it, despite the global health crisis and its derailment of their lives, and the lives of so many other theatre directors, choreographers, musicians and dancers whose work depends upon movement and circulation. Disanka eventually concurs: ‘We inherited rubble, but the land is still fertile.’

Judith Olivia Manantenasoa, Antananarivo, Madagascar in Letters from the Continent, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Studios Kabako

Continuing to build and create, whatever the conditions, has been the 20-year project of Studios Kabako, an art cooperative founded by the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula and located in Kisangani, a city in the northeast region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When the pandemic led governments across the African continent to close borders, cancel flights and demand that people stay put, Linyekula, along with Studios Kabako’s deputy director Virginie Dupray, reached out to their peers near and far and asked them to produce video self-portraits. The resulting film is a frank and moving compilation of 21 video testimonies of the life and work of theatre and dance artists in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Comoros, the DRC, Egypt, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia and France.

Seifeddine Manai, Tunis, Tunisia in Letters from the Continent, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Studios Kabako

In these vignettes, each a few minutes long, the dancers and directors share a brief choreographic phrase or performance, often accompanied by personal ruminations on the virus and its impact. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, most are solo dances shot by the performers themselves, sometimes at home and sometimes outside on the street, at the market, on a beach or by a river. They’re often improvisatory, and more often than not feature tense, agitated bodies – though these can be disrupted by sometimes endearing accidents, as when Marcel Gbeffa, a Beninese choreographer based in Gaborone, Botswana, tramples his kids’ toys on the floor of his living room. We follow dancer Dorine Mokha as he twirls between cars on the streets of Lubumbashi, distributing masks to passersby. The boredom of lockdown also surfaces: Chourouk El-Mahati, Moad Haddadi and Mohamed Lamqayssi, three Moroccan dancers who were rehearsing a performance in eastern France when flights were suspended, literally slam their bodies into the walls of their residency apartment. Kaïsha Essiane, who was living in Montpellier, France at the start of the year, returned to her parents’ house in Gabon, where we see her rehearsing a new work on the outdoor terrace – at least when she’s not interrupted by her siblings and nephews.

Samuel Gaphet, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in Letters from the Continent, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Studios Kabako

In March, US and European news sources grimly predicted that Africa and other poorer regions would bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has indeed been deadly in Africa, especially South Africa, but the death toll has been far lower than in the US and other Western countries that were supposedly better prepared. As of early December, African countries registered less than 4% of Covid-19 deaths worldwide, although Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warns that a second wave is still possible. ‘Many African countries, actually the majority of them, followed the science,’ noted Souleymane Bachir Diagne, the influential Senegalese philosopher, in a Zoom conversation a few weeks ago. In addition to government policy, he cited the continent’s youth, its cross-party endorsement for curfews, and the broad approval from both Muslim and Christian authorities for necessary health measures.

What better time, then, for Western dance and theatre audiences to put aside their prejudices about African innovation? Letters from the Continent offers a truly pan-African portrait, one that considers diversities and disparities while presenting a profoundly interconnected continent. But it does something more: with its very simple premise – to check in on friends during a crisis – it affirms that none of us can survive anything on our own.

Letters from the Continent will screen online at Bozar, Brussels from 9 to 13 December, and Africa Moment, Barcelona from 10 to 20 December.

Main image: Kaïsha Essiane, Libreville, Gabon in Letters from the Continent, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Studios Kabako

Charles Aubin is a curator at Performa. In 2020, he organized Performa’s online exhibition ‘Bodybuilding: Architecture and Performance’. He lives in New York, USA.