Excerpts from African Diaries
By Adam Benjamin
Animated, Summer, 1997
In April 1997 I led the CandoCo Education Team led a one week residency in Senegal. The project was initiated by Handicap International and supported by the Ministère de la Culture in Senegal and The British Council.
Friday. Arrival in Dakar
The poverty hits you like a punch in the face. In the darkness on our first night we head out into the streets of Dakar. During the festival that has just passed the pavement in front of the nearby mosque has become temporary home to some of the most wretched people I have ever seen. Dreadful poverty and disability that we walk past as if in shock. There seems nothing to do or say. I think Tom's big heart will break.
We are told that the project is to take place on Isle de Goreé.....once the centre of the slave trade across the Atlantic, and very probably the site where Tom's own family were transported from four hundred years ago. It is an exciting discovery rendered somewhat daunting on our first recci visit when we have to lift Tom plus wheelchair from dock-side to boat over three feet of open water.
On Monday we will do the same but with five wheelchair users, two blind, and four deaf students.
Goreé is a small island paradise a stone's throw from the madness of Dakar. Bright painted houses, old Portuguese architecture, wandering goats, fish being cooked on open grills and everywhere people and children eager to talk.
The floors of Museé Historique where we are to work are stone or concrete of varying degrees of un-flatness. The Museé is a circular building of inter-connected rooms, each opening via a white wooden door onto the central courtyard. Above turquoise sky and drifting eagles. The building speaks dance. With no wooden floors available anywhere we agree to do a site-specific piece.
I arrange for all the students to meet on the key side in Dakar so boarding the ferry becomes part of our daily practice; teaching us more about trust than anything I can possibly organize in a studio!
We all make it safely on board along with the daily shipment of vegetables, bread and assorted hardware needed by the islanders. Thus laden we head out on the first of our many crossings to Goreé.
There is not a single smooth path or ramp on the island but we eventually all arrive at the museum. There follows an hysterical half hour of organizing who wants 'poisson' or 'viande' for lunch. It is an opportunity for me to see the difficulties that lie ahead as people try to communicate in French, English, Wolof, French sign, English sign.....and what do you mean "vegetarian!"?
"Hands up if you want meat!" Shouts our coordinator in French, by the time this has been translated and signed, half the group are voting for fish...We have arrived in Africa and I begin to understand why the first dates of the project simply passed by and that we were indeed lucky to have made it before autumn.
A great first day despite the difficulties of working in four inter-connected spaces, but with Tom, Lu, Katie and Deb all hard at it, the basics of 'leading and following' were eagerly absorbed and the afternoon sees the first duets arising from support and counter-balance work.
Though talented and athletic performers neither the disabled nor non-disabled students have any experience of contact work and we have to watch like hawks to make sure everything is safe. The blind students in particular have never been stretched and it is in this area that we have most to offer.
Today's session ends with groups showing traveling sections over the bumpy courtyard...only one spill! The challenge now is to bring the students own dance style into the performance.
On the ferry I sit with Eugène, Aida and Papa Oumar Faye and they teach me how to sign some words I have written.
"Seulement si je ne te tiens pas trop fort, tu peux retourner vers moi."
Only if I do not hold you too strongly can you come back to me
The words reflect a 'movement principle' that we have been working on but also speaks about our lives, about the fact that we will be leaving soon, about Tom and his extraordinary journey into dance and through dance, back to Africa. Later we teach it to the rest of the group. First translating into Wolof and then shaped in the hands of the two blind students Matar and Mar Sow.
The piece is taking shape. The building itself suggests so many images. In the afternoon we begin working with the idea of 'leading and following' but using our hands to cover each other's eyes. Thus linked couples emerge from the doorways into the courtyard, they appear to be charged with meaning and significance.
We discover that both Martar and Mar Sow are able to locate the doorways independent of guidance... I find myself calling to the others, to give them the time and space to make their own decisions about where and how they travel. They are both responding with a determination and resolution that is inspiring and full of dignity.
We get Tom and his wheelchair up on the flat roof of the building for the first time. We approach the edge together until Tom gains confidence and makes his first solo traverse in his chair. It is an extraordinarily, moving moment as he passes for the first time high above the courtyard, framed by the intense blue sky.
The cassette player arrives......it's eccentricities perhaps explained by its age and by the host of tiny creature that seem to be living inside it and who wander across the dials and panels like citizens of a miniature electronic metropolis. I point out as politely as I can that the machine is not going to be usable.
Late afternoon, the piece is near completion. Sandwiches and cha are brought out and a few minutes later out come the djembes......within minutes the courtyard is alive with drumming and dancing. There is simply no barrier between the Senegalese and dance, no inhibitions to overcome, no false modesty, simply an un containable delight in life that erupts spontaneously at the slightest invitation. The disabled dancers spinning on their hands or balancing on sticks and crutches. Martar dances with white eyes open to the sky, skin glistening with sweat, arms raised, palms down, turning and stamping to the drums, dancing like and eagle.
We decide to rename our quartet Seulement si je ne te tiens pas trop fort. and to retain the signing that we had introduced for the performance here when we return to England.
Last day. Hurrying in, a student strides out purposefully in the opposite direction. It is not until several minutes later that I stop, shocked by the realisation that the confident, upright figure was Mar Sow.
In the afternoon the courtyard fills to overflowing with an estimated 150 spectators, from local shop keepers to local dignitaries. The show goes wonderfully. The mainly African crowd showers the performance with bursts of applause from beginning to end. The finale sees the courtyard alive with dancing, laughing people as the audience join in the final celebration.
Our departure is delayed by three days due to the vagaries of Air Afrique known locally as Air Peut-etre (Air Maybe.)
In between fruitless visits to the airport we schedule a rehearsal at Ecoles Nationales des Artes in Dakar for our forthcoming performance in England.
It is also a chance to say goodbye again to M Martin Lopy, the director and his excellent students. The school consists of one tiny studio with a concrete floor. In a corner I recognize a battered cassette player......it is the one I sent back, now in use again at the school.....it is their sole technical resource. A timely reminder of how much we take for granted and how far we sometimes stray from the true heart of dance. A heart that without doubt still resides in Africa.
Our thanks and love to everyone involved in the project.
This article, first published in the Summer 1997 edition of Animated magazine, is reproduced by kind permission of The Foundation for Community Dance:
31 Rutland Street