It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this fourth episode in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with dancer and choreographer Patrick Acogny, who teaches at the Dance in Education department.
Part 4: Being in the same heartbeat
It was ten years ago that Patrick Acogny (France, Senegal) first came to Amsterdam, for an Artist in Residence project with his mother Germaine Acogny. His classes have been an integral part of the Dance in Education curriculum ever since, and on two occasions all the second- and third-year students visited Senegal. Patrick Acogny has now shed light on his findings, method and ideas in a film and an essay.
I understand you were a late starter when it came to dance.
That’s right, in that I didn’t start at the dance academy until I was 23. I always danced for my own pleasure, but it never occurred to me that it would become my profession. Something got triggered during one of my mother’s workshops – it was the first time in my life I felt so clearly that this was what I wanted, and this was where I was going. After that, the laws of attraction meant everything fell into place. You could say 23 is late to start as a dancer, but when I see my mother performing at the age of 77, I think what does age matter really? [Laughs.] The way I see it, it’s not about when, it’s about how and why.
My movement analysis teacher Christine Roquet once made a rather provocative statement at a conference in Rio de Janeiro. She said, ‘In dance there is no body.’ And I thought, ‘Ahaa that’s interesting!’ For me there’s always been something unsatisfactory about how the body is seen in dance. Roquet also said, ‘It’s not about the body – whether it’s young or old, or black or white – it’s about how you move, and how you deal with gravity so your dance can emerge.’ When I heard that I thought: That’s right. Yes teacher, thank you!
Is there a connection between your research and what Roquet’s words?
Yes, directly or indirectly. I wrote in my essay about the deconstruction of African dance and how my teaching is based on that. When you study African dance, you generally learn a standard repertoire that you can then use to make the most fantastic combinations. That’s how I danced and choreographed for many years. Until, that is, I went to university in Paris and London for my Master’s degree, for which I analysed African dance in general and my mother’s method specifically. [Germaine Acogny is regarded as the founder of African modern dance.]
Initially, the only literature I could find on African dance was in the form of anthropological studies that were searching for the roots of its meaning – there were no direct sources about the dance practice, about what happens when you dance. If I wanted to understand African dance, I was going to have to study a very different field, namely contemporary dance, and I applied the theories I encountered there to my mother’s work.
Hubert Godard’s movement analysis opened up new worlds to me – my teacher Christine Roquet, who I was just talking about, was a student of his. Godard’s somatics helped me look at my body in a different way. It’s not about origin, sex, gender or even movement itself – it’s about the gesture in the space.
How do I relate to my weight, to gravity? In what different ways can I carry myself? These are the questions I incorporated in my didactics. I don’t turn my students into African dancers, I teach them how they can make their body receptive to a different dance aesthetic.
Is there a moment you can point to in your classes about which you can say: ‘This is when it happens!’
Something’s always happening at my class [laughs]. The classes are split into four parts. First I get students to explore the spine – by extending, undulating and waving they get a level of flexibility in the spine they’re totally unaccustomed to. The second part is all about bouncing and grounding; about how you use the floor and become one with the music. People often say ‘follow the music’, but we are the music. In dance, the body becomes a drum responding to the drum. We are in time. We are. When the students start getting that, I think: Ahaa!
There’s another interesting point when I ask them to step outside of their individual bubble and to become aware there are other people present. How do you go about dancing as a group? How do you become a single body together? How can you contribute to the greater whole? Can you allow yourself to be supported by the collective? If you give yourself to the group, there’s a point when you forget where you’re coming from. That’s a crucial point as well. It’s not about everybody making the same movements, it’s about being in the same heartbeat, the same emotion, the same breath.
In the third part of the class the students engage in very conscious fine-tuning of their body. They learn to understand how the movement of the spine and hips – the bouncing – works in their own bodies. It's like learning a new language. The fourth part focuses on their self-expression. And there’s another moment when you see the students discovering something essential. Most teachers ask students to give their maximum: Bam, Bam, Bam! You’ve got to dance! You’ve got to be there! You’ve got to give your all! I say: Give me no more than 50 per cent, sometimes 60, and if it feels really good then go for it! The more you exert yourself the worse it is. Dancing requires you to be detached and present at the same time. Often, students aren’t immediately able to give even 50 per cent, but they do feel that they can relax [Acogny breathes fully out]. Once they relax they can let something come out from inside – something manifests in the space you leave open.
How do the students react? I can imagine that this work could be mind-blowing for them, even if it’s just about developing movement in the spine.
It is. It brings a whole new set of possibilities with it. I’ve noticed that students find it illuminating if you can tell them what’s going on in their bodies. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to combine an academic and artistic practice – whatever I learn I connect it to what I do, and vice versa, and I pass it on to the students. I tell them: Right now you’re learning techniques from an African tradition, but think about how you could reach out to other areas, how to make the connection, again and again, between what you’re learning here and your own dance background.
The research project of Patrick Acogny, in collaboration with the Dance in Education programme, was made possible Educational Development of the ATD. Acogny also received support from DAS Research for his essay "Contemporary African Dance Deconstructed". The text will be available online in early 2022. The film "African Aesthetics and Contemporary Dance: A Practitioners Perspective" can be found here: https://www.youtube .com/watch?v=1UsxMiHB-Lk
text and interview: Hester van Hasselt