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Outlines & Outliers

The annual Tanz im August, a contemporary dance festival in Berlin, draws in hundreds of spectators and dance companies from around the world. This year, two companies with West African roots proved particularly popular: Nadia Beugré’s Libr’Arts and Serge Aimé Coulibaly’s Faso Dance Theatre. Both Beugré, hailing from Côte d'Ivoire, and Coulibaly, from Burkina Faso, are choreographers who direct successful troupes in Europe and tour extensively everywhere from New York to Berlin. However, perhaps more importantly, both use their craft to confront the immediacy of bodily representation and the various strains of humor, discomfort, and joy that this confrontation arises.

Performance

Nadia Beugré’s Libr’Arts and Serge Aimé Coulibaly’s Faso Dance Theatre

Place

Tanz im August Festival, August 2023

Words

Phoebe Roberts

Serge Aimé Coulibaly's “C la vie.” Photograph by Dajana Lothert / Tanz im August

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Nadia Beugré began her career in a traditional dance theatre in the Ivory Coast and was one of the founders, along with Béatrice Kombé, of the all-female Tché Tché dance company. She later moved to France, where she worked on solo projects and in 2020 founded Libr’Arts in Marseilles. About two years ago, she traveled to Abidjan, the city of her birth, to meet with members of the transgender community there. Specifically, she spoke with a group of trans women, many of whom work as hairdressers by day and club divas by night. With the members of this community, Beugré began to develop a choreographic investigation into gender, identity, and life on the margins of society (although Côte d'Ivoire—and Abijidan in particular—is known for its general permissiveness in comparison to neighboring countries, there are still no specific legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender Ivorians, making them vulnerable to violence and hostility). 

“Prophétique (on est déjà né.es),” Beugré’s work presented at the Tanz im August festival, is the result of that very investigation. Featuring six performers from Abijidan, Europe, and Brazil, the work is an energizing, ever-shifting blend of vogueing, coupé-décalé (a cross between Congolese rumba, hip-hop, Caribbean music and French folk songs, it is a type of popular dance music from Côte d'Ivoire), and other contemporary dance elements. To the sounds of Ravel’s Bolero, folk songs, and even a nursery rhyme, the performers (some professional dancers, others not) carry out a series of solos and group dances, each one more vibrant than the last. 

Nadia Beugré’s Libr’Arts in “Prophétique (on est déjà né.es).” Photograph by Dajana Lothert / Tanz im August

The piece begins as the performers enter the stage and take their seats on plastic garden chairs (one, raised, happens to evoke a hairdresser’s seat). In their chairs, they get ready, eat, dress, make-up; as an audience member, it feels as though we are permitted an intimate look at a particular group’s private life. However, make no mistake, this is definitely a performance: the dancers, clothed in sequins, fishnets, and bright colors, produce one excited tableau after the next. Some of these, like when the performers imitate the howling of dogs, or loudly smack bubble gum, allowing it to cover their whole faces, seem particularly designed to provoke. Yet isn’t that the point of all theater? To fracture the world as we know it and, at least momentarily, allow us access to a realm entirely different and yet instantly our own?  

In the darkness of my seat, I felt Beugré’s work do exactly that. “Prophétique (on est déjà né.es),” rather than exploiting the members of the community it centers around, demands its spectators enter into their sphere and witness their humanity. In a prior interview, Beugré stated that the hairdressers/divas she met in Abijidan are considered “madwomen” and that the very fact that they take up space is “crazy.” By the choreographer’s construction, then, the audience is mad too, as we ourselves have fallen under the spell of these performers. Ultimately, Beugré reminds us of the importance of stepping out of the narrowness of one’s own experience—even if that labels us “crazy.” 

Nadia Beugré’s Libr’Arts in “Prophétique (on est déjà né.es).” Photograph by Dajana Lothert / Tanz im August

While less immediately confrontational, Serge Aimé Coulibaly also tests the strength of the boundary between performer and audience. The founder of Faso Dance Theatre, he was born in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, and has been working in Europe since 2002 (the same year he started his company). Faso Dance Theatre is now based out of Brussels, with frequent tours across the continent and two shows at New York’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in 2022. His work at the Tanz festival, “C la vie,” continues his focus on themes such as collectivity, the urgency of physical expression, and the sheer joy of bodies moving together onstage. 

The work begins with a lone performer standing in the dark; in silence, they begin slapping their stomach, producing a rude awakening and warning the audience of what will soon follow. Soon, six other dancers enter the scene, coolly regarding both the audience and each other. Wearing sparkly tank tops, pink button-downs, and elegant trench coats, they look as though they are dressed to attend drinks down the road after the performance; essentially, this seems like it will be a very fun party. However, as the performers begin to circle the perimeter of the stage, gaining speed and urgency, it becomes clear “C la vie” is not at all a simple soirée, but rather an intense and searching probe into what and why we move, both as people and as dancers. 

Serge Aimé Coulibaly's “C la vie.” Photograph by Dajana Lothert / Tanz im August

With live percussion by Yvan Talbot and singing by Dobet Gnahoré, the work is perpetually in motion, with the most common theme seeing the dancers skipping in a vertiginous circle. From this whirl, certain dances break out, with some performers standing out more as characters than others: one man, Arsène Etaba, stares down the audience and laughs hysterically, while another, Ida Faho, is more introspective, dancing off in corners by herself. Gnahoré, too, is a particularly hypnotic presence: she calmy stalks among the dancers’ commotion, producing a clear and knowing voice that rises far above its surrounding chaos.  

If Coulibaly’s work has less of a clear center than Beugré’s, that’s okay: “C la vie” seems less a statement on politics or gender identity and more a celebration of movement itself. At its core, that is also what “Prophétique (on est déjà né.es)” is, even as it serves to expand our understanding of an overlooked and underrepresented community. Both pieces share the common knowledge that dance holds the power to unlock deep emotional responses that perhaps other forms don’t; both pieces use this to their advantage, winning the audience over with their dynamism and sweeping us fully into their faraway worlds. After the performances were over, everyone left the theaters and returned to their daily lives; I left Berlin and returned home. Still, the outlines of my life had grown a little bit larger, prodded a bit beyond their normal boundaries. For this, I have Beugré and Coulibaly to thank. 

Phoebe Roberts


Phoebe Roberts is originally from New York where she trained with American Ballet Theatre and Leslie Browne. She danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before studying Russian at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her writing has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Good Press, Glasgow, and Spectra Poets.

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