The irony of national dance companies is that so many of them spend the bulk of their time thousands of miles away from the culture that spawned their art. The Guinean company Les Ballets Africains spent six months touring last year. A few years ago they spent two solid years on the road - 697 performances in 730 days. Over the last year they have taken their virtuoso drumming and india-rubber footwork to Australia (including a 10-day stint at the Sydney Opera House), the US, Holland and Turkey.
The original Ballets Africains was formed in 1952 by Keita Fodeba who was teaching at the Sorbonne at the time. He composed his line-up from African students from Mozambique, Senegal and Nigeria. In 1958, when Guinea gained its independence from France, then-president Sekou Toure invited Fodeba to form a national dance company. Although Guinea is on its uppers, the company, which was rehearsing on cracked concrete five years ago, now has its own premises and rehearsal facilities.
Membership of the national dance company is an honour in itself but also represents an opportunity for dancers to earn valuable foreign currency. Russian ballet dancers are famous for touring the world living on home- produced tinned fish and the Guineans are similarly frugal. In addition to their salaries, they each receive a per diem allowance of about pounds 15. In order to save as much of this as possible, the thrifty performers self- cater in order to keep their subsistence costs down to around pounds 2 a day. Their budget menus are composed almost entirely of chicken but they like fish when they can get it.
Rikki Stein (no relation), the company's manager for the last 10 years, finds their parsimony understandable: "Each day's per diem is looked on as a couple of bags of cement or some roofing tiles. Everyone has a business back home. The only extravagances come at the end of a long tour. At the end of the last US tour we had to buy 75 VCRs to take home".