Koffi Kôkô

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Koffi Kôkô
Koffi Kôkô "Passage" © Jean Gros-Abadie

Article

The endless force moving us at every moment

Born in Benin, Koffi Kôkô is both a voodoo priest and one of Africa’s most accomplished modern dancers, choreographers and dance-scholars. His dancing is rooted in ritual, in the initiation for communication with the gods and nature. On meeting the western world, Kôkô began transposing his experience with ritual into a differentiated body language using the techniques and expressions of modern dance and contemporary drama. He has been living in Paris since the 1980s and travels between Europe and Africa.
"I began by using a technique enabling a person remaining motionless to put his body into a state of perception which extends the physical and mental limits of imbalance. From this point on there begins what may be called super-consciousness, the experience of that which may live within us at any moment… It has also been called concentration. In Benin we call it being dwelt in by this or that energy,” says Koffi Kôkô in explaining what his way of dancing is about in an interview with Johannes Odenthal (in: ‘ballett international’ / tanz aktuell 8-9/95).

He learned this technique on being initiated into the animistic rites of the Nago in Benin (formerly Dahomey).
These rituals are also recalled in Kôkô’s most famous solo work ‚Passage’, in which he looks back on animism with its pantheon of voodoo gods. It is more than a simple dance-drama. It conjures up an atmosphere of initiation, creating a perception of forces able to manifest themselves in various forms and to act in various ways. Nonetheless Kôkô stresses that it is not the same as an initiation ritual. Such a ritual is a way of making the sphere of magic accessible to initiates who have already learnt how it is shaped and structured, and each ritual is designed to match the god whom it honours. “In a deliberately designed context of participants who all know how this sphere comes into being,” says Kôkô, “there is created a variant of what may be called a performance in the theatrical sense – but a performance which has been passed on for more than a thousand years. Everything is so arranged that even disorder has its own place” (ibid).

At any rate: “If you do not live the ritual, you cannot understand it... Ritual dance techniques have a code related to certain rhythms which in turn are dedicated to a certain god. But the ritual itself is not a drama to be performed. It has to be transcribed,” explains Kôkô. “If I take this ritual out of its context and put it into theatrical terms, then as a choreographer and dancer I present a state of unlimited potential, the possibilities of dancing” (ibid). “In doing so, I tend to use a sequence of movements both choreographed and created from moment to moment. Sometimes the same things happen onstage as during a ceremony, when folk are united physically and mentally on a level of perception. Then both the performers onstage and the audience are borne away into the state of unlimited potential.”

On seeing such an event on stage, western audiences tend to think in terms of loss of body control. The abrupt transitions from pulsating, suave, flowing movement and proud pacing on the one hand to falling and stumbling on the other suggest that the dancers have fallen willingly or unwillingly into a trance. Technically, this requires that a dancer be able to ‘bounce back’ from any situation. “With mastery of this technique, one has a mobile centre. The body may fall, but if the centre goes along with it and remains the centre, things become interesting” (ibid).

A decisive role is played by the interaction of dance and music. Onstage Koffi Kôkô is accompanied by drummers who have likewise been ritually initiated so are able to augment him. “Once two elements are available, a sphere (of magic) is possible. During a ritual the moment of trance is said to be the moment at which the body sings and the drums dance… I try to take the audience along with us, to enable it to experience something of this sphere’s potential. I try to make the existence of this extended possibility felt in the field of forces between the audience, the musicians and myself.”

He manages to do so, as in ‘Passage’ but also in ‘D’une rive à l’autre’ / ‘From one Riverbank to the Other’, in which Kôkô uses similar means and reveals the range of his dancing, or in a duo performance with the flamenco dancer Mariacarmen Garcia in ‘Terre rougeâtre’ / ‘Scorched Earth’ / ‘Verbrannte Erde’. ‘Terre rougeâtre’ is an electrifying collision of two different dance cultures and dance-personalities, which is due to their search for a meeting and a common idiom as well as to their differences. Kôkô got to know Garcia in 1984 at a festival in Bourges (France) and was startled on seeing her for the first time, since her dancing reminded him of that of a famous Senegalese traditional dancer. “It was no longer an alien dance-style. On the contrary, the way in which it freed inner forces was very familiar to me. I was watching a dancer permeated by a tradition which brought her close to contemporary African dancing” (bita 2/97).
It was more than ten years before they performed together. Garcia was at first confused on being told that she was dancing with African steps, but onstage they were then able to bring apparent contraries together and show them to be akin. This they did in terms of the steps, dynamics and rhythms which the dancers and musicians learned from one another, and despite deep reservations, they also showed acceptance of the unfamiliar and drew from it joy and verve.

Even in the Genet project ‘The Lady’s Maids’ there was a meeting between three dramatists or dancers, each of whom had spent years in following between cultures his own very complex path. All three, coming from different cultures, seemed tailor-made for this experiment. Indeed Genet had rejected European drama and claimed that drama should rather have the quality of ritual like Chinese opera or Balinese drama. Koffi Kôkô, as a priest of the voodoo culture of his homeland Benin and also an up-to-date choreographer in Paris, was thus able to use his experience in transposing the initiation rituals of his homeland onto western stages. Yoshi Oida, who draws equally on European modernism and the great principles of Japanese drama, is as much at home in the spiritual experiences of Japanese Zen Buddhism as in the dramatic methods of Grotovsky and Brook.

The third of the group was Ismael Ivo, the fringe artist from São Paulo, who in search of a universal idiom of dance had found his way via Alwin Ailey in New York to expressive dance and dance-drama in Germany. All three are outstanding performers not bound to one culture or ethnic origin. All three have found a route between ritual forms and the idiom of contemporary drama. All three have an existential vision of drama beyond aesthetic modes and habitual devices and are searching, each in their own way, for a universal idiom. In it they would use knowledge drawn from various cultures about the body and staging for up-to-date drama projects.

Ismael Ivo is related to Genet through his radicalism. After focussing on Pasolini, Bacon, Artaud and Heiner Müller, he was drawn to Genet’s unreserved exposure of social structures and the chasms of human nature as well as to his vision of Utopic freedom. Just as Yoshi Oida read avidly about the split consciousness of Oliver Sacks’ patients (‘L’Homme qui’ /’The Man who…’, staged by Peter Brooke), the Brazilian performer explores the borderline of human existence. And for Koffi Kôkô, who is firmly rooted in the spiritual tradition of animism, this borderline is already part of the basis of perception.

For Koffi Kôkô and Yoshida Oida, Genet’s ritual murder inspires a metaphysical theatrical work. Yoshi Oida explains: “Christianity reaches out for spirituality through punishment of the body, through purification and through the denial of sexuality. From this western point of view Genet puts the body in an immoral position. He accepts all forms of desire for the body. He makes his way through the body’s filth. He is no Christian priest who lacerates the body but goes through its cruelty, through its flesh to spirituality, to freedom, to freedom in death.” Ismael Ivo adds: “Death was always part of Genet’s understanding of the body. He viewed life from the standpoint of death, from the standpoint of the repressed, the underdog, the rejected. He was not mainly concerned with destroying the body but rather with revealing a reality, the reality of social power-structures, of repression.” This refers to an aspect of Genet’s work related to the post-colonial discourse about freedom from ethnic and economic slavery. Genet departs from the pattern of perception imposed by Europe and western culture, so the staging of ‘The Lady’s Maids’ by a Brazilian, an African and a Japanese is a logical step along the cultural and historical path implicit in the text.

The starting point of their work was the 15 minute film ‘Chanson d’Amour’ made by Genet himself. This film offered Yoshi Oida, Koffi Kôkô and Ismael Ivo an important approach towards staging Genet’s ‘The Lady’s Maids’. The film silently shows two jailbirds who, in adjacent cells, love each other but have access to only their own separate bodies. Their only physical contact is a straw, which can be pushed through a chink in the wall as a channel for tobacco fumes, which thereby pass out of one jailbird’s lungs into the other’s. Or an effort is made to tie a flower to a piece of string and to swing it through a barred window towards the neighbouring one.

The men are near but far. They are parted by a wall which can be overcome only by breath, imagination and memory. The image itself is memorable. The jail stands for society, for its moral and political order. The body on the other hand stands for sexuality and desire. “Genet felt that he was jailed, but the walls are commonplace and immaterial. The relationship overcomes them,” says Koffi Kôkô about the core of his interpretation. He dances the role of Claire, gliding, subtle and finely vibrating, showing the range of his nuances, which tally with the wicked glow of his facial expressions. In every respect his artistry is modern, not folkloristic.

This is in line with the idiom of dance for which he had been looking: “I have been developing an idiom by resorting to my cultural heritage but not in the sense of being folkloristic or traditional. I wish to move forward, to bridge two different cultures. My main concern is to live out to the full the place where I happen to be, which in recent years has been France. But I would call my teaching activity, my didactics, African dance.’ (La Danser Magazine, Paris, 1996)



Author: Ulrich Joßner

Works

Les feuilles qui résistent au vent

Production / Performance,
2003

The Maids

Production / Performance,
2001

Was ihr wollt

Production / Performance,
2000
Choreography in Bremen

Au fond du puits

Production / Performance,
2000
Concept, choreography and dance in München

La Marche du Caméléon

Production / Performance,
2000
Choreography and dancer. based on a text by Hâmpaté Bâ. With Yoshi Oida in Paris

La Marche du Caméléon

Production / Performance,
2000
second prize in London

Hommage à Nijinski

Production / Performance,
2000
Choreography and dancer in Berlin

Il danse le monde

Production / Performance,
1999
touring japan 1998/ 1999

Ça

Production / Performance,
1999

Passage

Production / Performance,
1998
Shows in Berlin, New York and Washington (at the Kennedy Center)

Terrre Rougeâtre

Production / Performance,
1998
Shows at the festivals of d`Avignon, Bienne, Ludwigsburg, Foix , London and Bourges

Dix mois d`école et d`opéra

Production / Performance,
1998

Passage

Production / Performance,
1997
Shows at festivals in Brazil (Rio) and in Hongkong

D`une rive à l`autre

Production / Performance,
1997
Shows in Hamburg (Kampnagel)

Terre rougeâtre

Production / Performance,
1997
Duo with Mariacarmen Garcia Concept, Choreography und Dancer Shows in TCD (Paris), Theatre Duchamps (Villon)

Percussive Feet

Production / Performance,
1996
Duo Carmen-Kôkô, Shows at the festival "Dance Umbrella" London

Cie DANAT

Production / Performance,
1996
Invitation by "Cie DANAT" to Barcelona (Master Class)

L`atelier

Production / Performance,
1995
Shows in Avignon

D´une rive à l`autre

Production / Performance,
1994
Concept, Choreography and dancer at the Biennale of Lyon

Mama Africa

Production / Performance,
1994
Staged at the festivals "Dance Umbrella" and "Bâteau Feu de Dunkerque"

L`atelier

Exhibition / Installation,
1994
Concept - Compagnie Pierre Doussaint Dancers: Mariacarmen Garcia, Koffi Kôkô and Pierre Doussaint

Mémoires Brumaires

Production / Performance,
1993
dancer, with the Compagnie Pierre Doussaint

Jackets ou la main secrète

Production / Performance,
1993
Choreography and dancer. Director: Bruno Boêglin. At the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris

Faust

Production / Performance,
1992
Choreograph and dancer; directed by Gabriel Bodomassi in Cambridge

Les 41ème Rugissants

Production / Performance,
1992
Dancer with the Compagnie Pierre Doussaint in Paris

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

IN TRANSIT 2005

(02 June 05 - 18 June 05)

IN TRANSIT 2004

The Third Body

(02 June 04 - 13 June 04)

IN TRANSIT 2003

Customs – Nothing to declare

(30 May 03 - 14 June 03)

The Maids

Dancetheatre on o piece by Jean Genet

(07 April 01 - 09 April 01)
images
Koffi Kôkô
Passage
video

Excerpt from the performance "Ça"

Tanzhaus NRW, Düsseldorf, December 2000
© Feirefitz
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From: "Les feuilles qui resistent au vent"

staged at IN TRANSIT 2003
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