A DISCUSSION ABOUT TECHNIQUE, THE CONTEMPORARY, AND SPIRITUALITY WITH KOFFI KÔKÔ AND ISMAEL IVO.
By Sabina Holzer
corpus: In the description of your workshops you say: „Dance is a ritual: a sacred ritual, a social ritual“, or: „Creation is movement: and the sacred dance arises from the need to identify with the eternal round of the creative forces in the cosmos.“ Koffi Kôkô states that he is a Voodoo Priest. Why is it important for you to point out the spiritual aspect in your work?
Koffi Kôkô: For me the spiritual aspect is important and I want to share this. I want the people to know what it is if one has a spiritual way. I also mentioned it because I cannot be no Voodoo Priest. It is a part of me. It is not that I cannot be a doctor because I am a Voodoo-Priest, it is not that I am a Voodoo Priest and therefore I cannot be a dancer or choreographer. I don’t want the people to mystify this issue. Of course my first dance came from the ritual. The ritual is an essence in Voodoo. The knowledge and all you need to know comes with the dance: how to work with your body, to know the rhythms, to know the history and how to relate to the different energies in nature. Each divinity has his rhythm, his dance, his movement. Before people tended to think that we don’t have dance classes in Africa. They thought African people have it in their blood or something. It is not like that. I was in a convent and I learned with a teacher.
corpus: You mean through Voodoo you learn all those different aspects?
Kôkô: Yes, it is a school. You learn the theology.
corpus: Do you use the different dances and rhythm in your class now?
Kôkô: After I left highschool, I worked with different groups and came to Europe. I learned different disciplines, to get to know what is dance in Europe. I wanted to know the different techniques – classic, modern, contemporary. I did research to get to know what is the theory, what is the mind behind the dance. This helped me to understand what dance is for European people. I also had meetings with different artists from Asia, Africa etc. These meetings are very important in the life of an artist as you can imagine. This knowledge is related to my career as a dancer and choreographer. I pretend sometimes that I am universal, because I feel like that sometimes. But I really try to be more and more open. And I never forget to pray to my divinities and the ceremonies in Benin.
„Today the young dancers burn out so quickly. They don’t have patience anymore. They don’t develop.“
Ismael Ivo: Me as an African-Brazilian and Koffi Kôkô who is an African dancer have been in the foreground for years. We took from the ritual, from the traditional roots and connected this knowledge to the contemporary. Today we are at a crossroads of the definition of what is contemporary. At the moment we don’t know anymore what contemporary dance is. There have been a lot of different developments, a lot of different moves, from the classical dance by Forsythe, construction, deconstruction, modern, postmodern, post-postmodern, minimalism. We don’t know anymore what is contemporary and where to get other sources which we can connect to the contemporary. Also right now in the latest development of contemporary dance in Africa there is a kind of awaking, a reorientation happening.
corpus: What is contemporary in your opinion?
Ivo: Our generation, which I could put … okay, Koffi Kôkô, Susanne Linke and myself, we really went very deep trying to find our way. Me from my Afro-Brazilian roots, Koffi from his African roots, Susanne Linke from her German roots. We developed our path into contemporary dance. Susanne Linke is not Mary Wigman, but her roots are from her. Today the young dancers very rarely become personalities like Susanne or Koffi, because they burn out so quickly. They don’t have patience anymore. If they have some talent, they immediately want to do as much as possible. It is too quick. They don’t develop.
corpus: What do you mean by that?.
Ivo: When you look at the base of dance, then you will notice that dance has always been a ritual. Human beings celebrated life and nature and started to imitate nature. That was how dance was born. You need not to look at African roots, in the Greek roots you also have the rituals of Dionysos. They were also about trance and cultivation. Dance always has been connected to celebration and spirituality and man setting himself up to observe and respond to nature. Today we live in this incredible world, and dance has to respond to this world.
corpus: In which way do you think one could respond?
Ivo: You should not respond out of the blue. You have to have a standing point from where you can respond.
corpus: Isn’t contemporary dance today a very heterogeneous field of practice and theory, in which also different cultures are brought together?
Ivo: Yes, but we have to be a bit careful, otherwise we end in the global age like United Colors of Benetton.
corpus: No, that is not what I meant.
Ivo: Yes, but this is a bit the danger. It is important that we observe and we learn from the other cultures. We should not try to press the things together, like a fashion. Our collaboration with Yoshi Oida is remarkable, or with George Tabori, Johann Kresnik. We were open for a dialogue and through this we found a new path.
corpus: You mean theatre and dance opens ways for dialogue? Kôkô: Yes, absolutely – for cultural and spiritual dialogue.
„Dance is ephemeral. You start a dialogue. We call that a spiritual force. It means to go inside and search deeply what you want to do.“
corpus: What kind of symbols and gestures do you find relevant to communicate nowadays? What do you think is important to communicate as a dancer and choreographer?
Kôkô: You have to develop the gestures and symbols in relation to your work. Dance is ephemeral. You start a dialogue. We call that a spiritual force. It means to go inside and search deeply what you want to do. After that you develop symbols to communicate your experience and your process. It is important that you learn how to dance and make a choreography, but at a certain point you have to dance with your honesty, your humility and also with your strength. We talk about the power in nature – it is our nature. From there you can take something completely neutral, you can call it the way you want. But it is important that you work from your base, from your work, when you start to do it. It is important that you learn what your dance is. People think that dancers are narcissistic, but we pass this generation now. In the 21st century dance is not anymore a person dancing virtuoso and the others watch.
corpus: You mean we have a different dialogue with the audience now?
Kôkô: Yes, like Ismael Ivo said, it is about dialoguing. Also to see what is the answer to this contemporary time we are living in.
Ivo: I thought about something recently and I want to put this here: I am a post-exotic being.
Ivo: Koffi is also post-exotic. Exotism does not interest me any longer. „I am the Brazilian! I am the African!“ This is over for me.
Ivo: So what do we think about „global“ culture? People nowadays mostly have a lot of access to different information. What Koffi was saying is very important. The people have access to form and movements, but soon comes a burn-out phase. Then they don’t know where to look, how to renew. You really have to go and listen to yourself, how you want to respond to this society. When you look at African dance, you see there is a code of gestures and movements which comes from a desire for communication. People often mystify that, but we humans simply need connections for expression. There is the need of translating desire. Classical ballet also has its code. It is about the body and how to understand the body. But I think what Koffi said is fundamentally important: if you respond, it is not only to get a certain style or fashion of movement but to find a response to this concrete metallic wall.
corpus: You mean to connect to the environment?
Ivo: Yes, how to take your body and respond to this environment. Very often you take a certain code from a traditional base and you respond. (He stands up, doing some traditional African steps, with the arms opening and closing. He moves backwards with these steps until he crashes against the iron wall of the Arsenal kitchen. He laughs.) I am dialoguing with the world today, but I come from my tradition.
„Voodoo is a profound way of discovering these connections, to understand our purpose today, looking for light. But the Indian culture does the same, Yoga does the same.“
corpus: In which way do you combine or separate the profane and the spiritual in your work? The question is related to dance training. Often methods and practices are used which come from spiritual practice, but are applied as body/dance technique.
Kôkô: When I understand profane, as it is in French, it means somebody who does not really know what spirituality is. We live now in a time where there is not just one way of spirituality and the different ways all point in one direction. They are connected through the same search in the direction of the light. Certain codes change but the profane maybe does not know what is waiting for him afterwards. For me spirituality is not mysticism. Spirituality is what is now, what is happening now. It is how we evolve in relation to our culture, our society, and never forget that we have this force of nature. So we have to ask for permission, we have to be humble.
Ivo: I agree with Koffi: What is spirituality? It is not mysticism, because in reality we all probably try to understand the meaning of life. And this you can see in many different cultures. We try to find the clue of life and try to make life relevant. Be it with Yoga or dance. Sometimes we apply categories. It is a discrimination. Like images which come from commercials representing Voodoo.
Kôkô: This Voodoo is made by Hollywood.
Ivo: Voodoo is a profound way of discovering these connections, to understand our purpose today, looking for light. But Indian culture does the same, Yoga does the same.
corpus: What would you recommend to young upcoming artists?
Ivo: There is a certain point of education which brings the attention to the body, exactly how you say. People can develop so much technically, but they never become artists. There is always a high point, and if you get to this information without honesty and support, you are lost. You need the humility of translating ideas, to find connection with you in response to the world. You have to find bases, find a ground, spiritual connection, things related to simplicity. It is not about doing African dance. You have to find a way to dialogue with this information. That was exactly what we [Ivo together with Kôkô and Oida, ed.] did in „Die Zofen“ by Genet in 2001. We took those different characters and translated them into a theatrical way, in a contemporary form. But you have to have something you are looking for. That is the basis. Then your body has to be worked. But you have to have something inside to give. My motto is a strong belief. Belief makes you curious, makes you search, research and start to translate. It is like a metamorphosis into a new type of expression and information.
„I find myself talking to young dancers about learning how to listen to the silence inside themselves. Through that I think you achieve a certain knowledge.“
Kôkô: I find myself talking to young dancers about learning how to listen to the silence inside themselves. Through that I think you achieve a certain knowledge. Then it is easier to arrive and come in touch with what is dance. This is my recommendation.
corpus: To listen to the silence inside?
Kôkô: Yes, it is very important. The most important point you realise that after you arrived and you know you can bring your legs here and there. What comes after that? From the silence you can go and communicate. It is very important. I think many young people have no time for this. We talk so much about contemporary dance and globalisation.
corpus: There is a lot of access to information.
Kôkô: But between this information you always have to find the quietness and silence from inside before you go outside. This is something very important.
corpus: I think it is something for every artist. It is a place you come back to.
Kôkô: Yes, it is the basis and the start for movement. If you think dance has a body and the body has different kinds of movements: undulation, staccato, etc. … But before this the movement starts from a certain point. When you want to develop yourself and you want to start to dance and you don’t come to this point, I think you miss the point of the movement. You miss the point where the movement starts and how you can communicate.
corpus: You mean if the mind is too full the movement disappears?
Kôkô: Dance is ephemeral. You can make a photo or a video from a piece, but when you are not there in the moment that it happens, you miss it. When you miss the point where movement starts, you miss the movement. This is one big trip. I say that dance is ephemeral, but the dancer is not. I think we pass the time where European people think – I mean in classical and modern dance – when you are fourty years old you’d better stop dancing because you cannot dance or jump as before. But real dance is not in the jump. The big dancer who I respect is the dancer who passes technique. If you dance and I can see the technique, for me you are not dancing. It is an application of technique. The dancer needs to make you forget his technique. I think dancers can be more quiet and have more time with this silence. Like this they will find when the moment for transition comes.
(August 20, 2008)