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Ageless: Interview with Germaine Acogny

Mon 6 June 2022
Part of: AGELESS Festival | July 2022
Germaine Acogny Workshop

Yorkshire Dance presents Ageless Festival 1-2 July, a packed two day programme across three venues in Leeds of bold new performances, inspirational talks, workshops and classes from both local and international dance artists. 

Headlining this year’s festival is Senegalese dancer and choreographer Germaine Acogny, who in 2021 was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale Dance festival. Acogny is the founder of the renowned École des Sables dance school and at 78 years old she continues to tour the world, teaching alongside both her solo and new collaborative performances pieces.

Yorkshire Dance Associate and writer Joanna Jowett caught up with Germaine, the week after she performed on her 78th birthday midway through her international tour. Joanna finds out what inspires her and continues to enthuse her passion for dance.


JJ: Coming out of times of such uncertainty, it seems even more vital and important to bring people together and share the common language of dance. The power that can be found in dance for transformation and regeneration is something you have always pioneered. What role do you think dance can and is having in 2022 as the world opens up again following the pandemic?

GA: Dance is a specific weapon, it can bring people together. By dancing, regardless of whether it is professional or amateur, it enables us to respond to all the bad things that are happening around us and in the world – whether that is the environment or war, it gives you a weapon you can use, a voice to speak with.


JJ: In June you will be performing at Sadler’s Wells with the UK Premiere of common ground[s] with Malou Airaudo. Creating groundbreaking new work through collaborating across genres and styles of dance seems embedded and really central to your practice. What new lessons and insights has this most recent work given you?

GA: I am very happy to continue to dance. On 28 May, I celebrated my 78th birthday and I was so happy to perform my new piece with Malou Airaudo, a leading performer of Pina Bausch’s most early works. We are both evolving within the performance and growing within the piece each time we perform it. Malou is 74, I am now 78 and we are getting closer to each other the more we perform. Now we have conversations on stage as part of the piece, exchanging some phrases and ideas. I also have my solo piece ‘Somewhere At The Beginning’, which talks about my life, my father and religion in my home country. I adapt to my age within the piece, to what is possible now for my body. The director I collaborated with on this piece is Mikaël Serre – he is often astonished to see how I continue to grow with this piece, as it too is always evolving. If I was working like a machine, always repeating the same things, I would stop dancing. The evolution and improvisation within my work and development of the technique is ongoing and is really at the heart of why I still dance. 


JJ: What are the questions that you now ask when embarking on making a new piece of work? What similarities and differences are there in the way you work now, compared to some of your earliest work? 

GA: I still like the work I made at the beginning. I saw a picture recently from the 70s of one of my performances, I was wearing a skirt made in traditional Ankara fabric. That wasn’t really my taste, but I wanted to honour the traditional dances I was performing. I performed with live percussion, and it was very much related to my roots. My technique grew from there and I then moved on to choreograph for the company I founded. I wanted to express a response to what was happening in the world through my work after that. I worked with Japanese choreographer Kota Yamazaki to create the piece Fagaala’ in response to the genocide in Rwanda. Working with international choreographers, there is always something new. Composing music for the work, that too has been something that I have explored more and has evolved alongside my career in dance. That is something I consider now, whereas before I danced only to pre-recorded music. 


JJ: Can you tell us a bit more about what we can expect from the masterclass with you on Saturday 2 July at Yorkshire Dance?

GA: One thing. You can expect to transform your body to be part of nature. Nature has many beautiful movements, for example, you might dance as the buffalo or the deer. We explore beasts in Senegal specifically, and the trees, I have developed beautiful movements for both of these trees. This will help dancers to grow with their own dance body language. Through this technique I have discovered, each movement has its own rhythm, performed with the percussion. These movements are an introduction, a little taster as to what we do at École des Sables, and should help dancers to develop their dance personality. 


JJ: Who inspires you in dance right now and why? 

GA: I am mainly inspired by nature, the dance of life! Of course I watch other choreographers, other styles and sometimes it touches me, of course, but it usually doesn’t make me want to follow a particular style in order to express myself. I am more connected to my traditions, my roots of dance, to nature and responding to certain events – they are what inspire me the most. 


JJ: What is next for you, are there any projects or ambitions you have that are yet to be realised, and what might be on the horizon for you next?

GA: The École des Sables, our school in Senegal, is continuing to do important work and it now has a new artistic direction. As the founder I try to guide them, but help them to run the school in their way. As founders myself and Helmut don’t have a role in the school other than ‘founders’. I watch what is happening and where this younger generation are going with it, offering guidance where needed. I enjoy travelling and continuing to perform. I am working on a new piece with theatre Director Mikaël Serre that we hope to tour in the autumn. It is important that there are always new projects, and that the work tours and is seen, people still come to watch and invite me to collaborate, so life is busy! That is important to me, so I don’t become like an old car, rusting in the garage… 


JJ: Will you forever be dancing and making?

GA: I would not work, if it was not for my pleasure and part of my passion. If the body allows it, then yes, I will dance and teach until the end of my life. 

There is a unique chance to hear Germaine in conversation, alongside a screening of the film Iya Tunde, documenting her life as a major figure in dance at Ageless Festival on Friday 1 July 7.30pm. Take part in a Masterclass with Germaine on Saturday 2 July at 10am at Yorkshire Dance by booking a weekend or Saturday festival pass.

The full Ageless Festival programme and festival passes are now available here


With thanks to Helmut Vogt for assisting with translation for this interview. 

From 7 to 11 June, Germaine Acogny & Malou Airaudo will present and perform The Rite of Spring and common ground[s] at Sadlers Wells in partnership with the Pina Bausch Foundation and École des Sables.

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