Fusion of traditional and contemporary
Ethiopia is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. The traditional dance scene in Ethiopia speaks of this fact laud and clear. Every dance movement carries with it a piece of the specific mindset of the community which created it. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s traditional dance scene is also the least studied and investigated. Yet, in recent times, some innovative dance crews are coming up with a unique style which is also important to preserve traditional dances by fusing it with contemporary moves, explores Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen.
Nambi IV, The Present Past, is a dance piece choreographed by Ugandan dancer Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala. The dance performed by her along with two other contemporary dancers takes the audience back to ancient times to reflect up on potent African queens.
Last week the three dancers graced Alliance Ethio-Françaises’ stage with royal outfits and noble moves. The half an hour show was intended to depict how African queens used to rule their respective countries. The dance highlighted African queens from Yaa Asantawwa, Queen of the Ashanti Empire (Ghana), to Queen Nzinga of Angola, Queen of Sheba of Ethiopian and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
The prevailing, and at times warrior-like moves of the dancers were accompanied with witty and frisky sides of the women.
“The dance reflects how the ancient queens used to rule, how they used to carry themselves, how they were leaders, warriors and still kept their men by their sides supporting them. The piece illustrates how these women were respected by society and how they reflect to the women of today,” explains the choreographer.
The piece mirrors and prompts women of today about their roles and contribution towards building societies. It challenges gender roles in the traditional African society by invoking stories from ancient times.
Lilian says the performance speaks to the business women, entrepreneurs and other professional women of the present. It calls up on women to value themselves as a valuable member of the society and be confident in carrying out any task.
She is a member of Ugandan contemporary dance group called Batalo East, which was formed on basis of linking and strengthen traditional and urban arts, five years ago.
“We represent contemporary dancers who go back to their heritages. When you know the new styles in dance and bring them to the traditional aspect, you create something that identifies you,” she elaborates.
The company encourages preservation of culture and the development of young people who have strong roots in their home culture. They strive to create a sense of identity and place while promoting dancers who can contribute to the globalized world.
Batalo East is one of five international contemporary dance crews who gathered in Addis Ababa for a common cause—preserving traditional dance by way of fusing its elements with contemporary moves.
Destio dance company, founded in 2014 by two contemporary dancers, Addisu Demissie and Junaid Jemal Sendi, organized Adey international dance festival, which brought together dancers from different regions of Ethiopia and other countries.
Destino was founded to support underprivileged youth including street children and people with physical disabilities, in developing their inner-potential through dance. Visually impaired people and people with disabilities were among the performers at the festival.
The company provides free artistic lessons in their dance academy in Addis Ababa located around Vatican Embassy. They also perform around the globe popularizing Ethiopian contemporary dance.
Adey international dance festival came about when the dancers sought to explore Ethiopian traditional dance from various regions. After securing a fund from the European Union and the Embassy of Switzerland, they had a three-month journey with the purpose of promoting, preserving and documenting traditional Ethiopian dance.
Once discovered Ethiopian traditional dance has not been well documented; consequently it is in grave danger of disappearing. The crew tried to cover seven regions and study their respective traditional dances. The endangerment of traditional dance is not just an Ethiopian problem; in fact countries with similar experience were invited to the three-day festival.
Dancers from Uganda, Tanzania, Spain, Slovakia and Japan were invited to showcase their experiences in safeguarding their national dance heritage by blending it with contemporary moves. Spanish dancers exchanged experience with dancers from Gambella region where as Japanese with Somali region and Ugandans with Amhara region.
The festival was comprised of workshops, exhibitions, screenings, conferences and dance performances at Alliance Ethio-française and Ethiopian National Theatre.
As Lilian explains, in Uganda, there have been efforts by contemporary dance companies to preserve the traditional dance by fusing it with contemporary moves. In their company, they invite traditional dancers from remote areas so that they work alongside the urban youth. Whereas the urban dance teachers are playing a role in fusing the traditional with contemporary elements.
This process is a long one and not everyone in the society understands what they are trying to accomplish. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped them from continuing the hard work. They always try to get closer to their communities through social dance nights and other outreach programs. The company also pushes the youth to research traditional dances by going back to their cultural heritage.
Lilian says, “Urban dancers didn’t want to associate themselves with cultural troops because they feel like they were backward. But, when we start to work with them, together in the same space this attitude started change.”
The company creates space for the youth since most of them don’t know their background. As Lilian puts it, the young ones are lost and they didn’t know where to attach themselves. Therefore, the company works on bringing them closer to their culture so that they appreciate where they are from.
She also indicated that they are to start archiving traditional Ugandan dance from different regions with a grant they recently secured. Similar to Ethiopia’s case, lack of documentation is one of their biggest challenges. “Some traditional dances are going extinct. We are trying to revive these by working with different communities that still practice the dances,” the dancer explains.
From Africa to Europe and Asia, contemporary dancers share similar sentiment when it comes to preserving heritage through dance. Japan’s Mademoiselle Cinema dance company is among crews trying to hold on to artistic heritages.
Les Slovaks is a Slovakian dance squad consisting dancers Milan Tomasik, Martin kilvady, Milan Herich and a French musician Simon Thierree. It is an old time friendship crew founded since the members started folk dance together in their home town. They established the company in 2006- with a folk dance background they got into contemporary dance and blended the two.
For Adey international dance festival, also commemorating their 10th anniversary, they presented a piece called “Journey Home” which Milan explains as “We do traditional dance mixing it up with contemporary. The piece has a nostalgic effect about where we are from.”
Martin says, “Although we are contemporary dance company, we focus more on traditional folk dance.” The crew explains their piece as a melting of different regional dances from Slovakia.
In Slovakia, there are companies that document and preserve the traditional customs existing in dance. These dedicated companies have worked a lot on the documentation process and they present their dance fusions in various venues.
Addisu Demissie co-founder and manager of Destino Dance Company says that their crew’s initial aim was to study seven Ethiopian regions’ traditional dance in three months. However, they discovered each region takes a longer time. As a result, they decided to do a short survey that highlights the inspiration behind different Ethiopian traditional dances.
They tried to document reasons behind each and every body movement, including the traditional cloth and jewelries worn by communities. “We came across dances we haven’t seen before. Our aim was to explore the reasons behind their body movements. And discovering the inspirations was very surprising,” he recites.
He references few Ethiopian traditional dance styles along with the background of how they came to be. Kemise’s dance is somewhat a resemblance of farm oxen. When farmers plough the land the oxen lead the way moving their front legs in a certain way. The farmers took this inspiration which was later adopted into their dance.
Tenben’s traditional dance, performed by a man and a woman, resembles the interaction of doves. The woman holds her arm pit and bends down from her shoulder, while the man overshadows her. “It is as if male doves circulate the female dove showing interest. However, the female retreats refusing to depend on the man.”
Raya traditional dance brings to mind people moving from one place to the other. The dancers don’t hold on to a steady ground but move forward with energy.
“All in all when we look at Ethiopian traditional dance, it looks like the human body structure. From north by the way of the middle to south regions, the body movement goes down from head to toe. North focuses on neck and shoulder which continues to belly, hips and ends with foot movement,” the dancer points.
Addisu says there is a huge gap when it comes to documenting these traditional dances. He doubts the presence of adequate researches with profound analysis to the background and value of these dances within the Ethiopian community.
So as to protect the traditional values, Destino came up with a documentary movie and a book.
He believes though change is inevitable, the traditional base shouldn’t be forgotten rather emphasized with contemporary dance.
“We are cotemporary dancers but there are lots of dancers all over the world who do the same thing, sometimes even better than us. What make us exceptional is traditional dance. Therefore, it is wise to fuse these elements with contemporary moves so that we gain an international acceptance with our unique style,” he elaborates.
Lucie James, project coordinator of the company, agrees taking inspirations from traditional dance and blending with the contemporary aspect will help the dance transcend time. She says they aimed at preserving, documenting and promoting traditional dance as one of Ethiopia’s cultural heritages.
She explains the dancers knew the richness of Ethiopian’s traditional dance but had difficulties to draw inspirations since there are little written documents. This led them to travel to Oromia, Gambela, South, Amhara, Tigray, Benishangul Gumez and Somali regions.
She believes documenting these traditional dances will contribute to the preservation process and also will lay the ground works for future studies.
She says it is not easy to gain the full attention of the society since there is limited knowledge when it comes to contemporary dance. She describes the alienation as “Contemporary dance is almost alien to Ethiopians culture but slowly there is a growing interest.”
According to Lucie, the free nature of contemporary dance, which leads people to express themselves spontaneously aids people to open up to the style. She avows “With the power of dance, we will get to the point we need in time”.
Destino tries to cultivate the contemporary dance culture among the youth by training them how they can blend traditional moves with contemporary steps. Before the festival, they have been training young traditional dancers in different regions.
“The only way to make a sustainable society is to preserve traditions. Thus the youth have been given notions in how by using contemporary choreograph one can preserve traditional dance. As long as one can keep the traditional essence, its best to modernize the dance to tell current stories,” she notes.
Netsanet Birhanu, 16, is among the traditional dancers who learned to fuse traditional and contemporary dance moves. Born and raised in capital of the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State, Asossa, she has been focusing on traditional dances from communities such as Berta and Mao.
She believes it is important to blend the traditional steps with the contemporary ones to gain wider acceptance. “We have to understand, research and document the past so as to know where we came from. This should be done along with revising our heritages with a modern touch,” she explains.