The stereotype of African dance as a bunch of performers in grass skirts capering merrily to the rhythm of the drums is a hard one to lay to rest. The 1970s West End hit, Ipi Tombi, and a million package holidays to Kenya and the Gambia have convinced much of the dance-going public that African dance is little more than cabaret. Words like "colourful" and "vibrant" confirm their suspicions.
Patrick Acogny, new artistic director of Kokuma Dance Theatre, is anxious to outrun this image. "People have expectations about Africa. It's a kind of tourism and this is something I'm trying to overcome. What we're doing is exciting, of course, but [our dance] is an art form too, it's not just a culture. I want people who love dance to come."
The company is currently touring with two programmes, Masks and Passages. Are they authentic? Acogny thinks authenticity is a bit of a red herring. "If you want authentic dance you have to go right into the villages. What we're doing is not authentic, it's African contemporary; we're trying to explore the vocabulary. I don't think it's possible for one dance company to both reconstruct authentic dance and to move forward. But it is important that some people do perform authentic dance so that people like me can evolve the form.
That's the plan anyway, but in practice, ethnic dance companies are under pressure to popularise. "For entertainment reasons we have to change the dance to make it exciting and vibrant from a Eurocentric point of view. But real African dance is also very quiet and very tender, but we never see things like that: it's always up-tempo and vibrant drums. Sometimes a dance can take hours to develop but audiences always want it to be easy, to be spectacular - if it's boring, you zap and you change channel. This is the danger we're facing."Reuse content