For the third edition of KAHWA event, co-organized in march 2020 by Circostrada, The Fabrique Culturelle and the Institut français de Côte d'Ivoire at the third edition of Rica event - Rencontres Interculturelles du Cirque d'Abidjan and MASA - Abidjian Market for Performing Arts, Claudine Dussollier establishes an overview of the contemporary circus and creation in public spaces in the Ivory Coast, and more extensively in West Africa.
The RICA: a small festival and driving force for circus arts in West Africa
It was late afternoon on 2 March 2020, and the atmosphere in Cocody was electric. The audience was clustered around a dance floor marked out with lorry tyres, and had been on their feet for three hours in a row, watching and cheering on the line-up of circus performers selected by Chantal Djédjé1 and her team in the run-up to the third edition of the RICA.
That evening was a festive one on the market square of this working-class neighbourhood. The programme featured a smorgasbord of circus performers from Circo Bénin, the Cirque de l’Equateur, and the Gabon, as well as those from the European women’s collective Ino Kollektiv, acrobats from Faso Cirque, and equestrian performer Madi Dermé from Burkina Faso. This edition also offered up a wonderful discovery in the form of an Ivorian troupe of young acrobatic dancers from Abidjan, whose flashes of humour and sprightly sense of mischief delighted the crowd. The dancers grew up in the Yopougon district, where they met Franco-Haitian choreographer Jenny Mezile2 and her company, Les Pieds dans la Mare. As a result, the first seedlings of a new initiative are emerging into the light: a circus school in this neighbourhood of Abidjan, aimed at fostering these talented young people who play on the traditions of their city and its popular coupé-décalé with panache. RICA rolls off the tongue, ringing out loud and clear. It stands for “Rencontres Interculturelles du Cirque d’Abidjan” (InterCultural Circus Meetings of Abidjan).
The events are intercultural in more ways than one: Africans collaborating with Africans; Europeans, Canadians and Africans all coming together; performers and audiences interacting – “meetings” of all types form the bedrock of this festival!
The RICA kick off in several different working-class neighbourhoods in the days leading up to the start of the performances that make up the festival proper, which take place at the Institut français in the city centre. These public afternoon events are held on the Place de Cocody, or in Abobo primary school’s spacious courtyard, bringing together over 2,000 children and many parents. The events are a key part of La Fabrique Culturelle’s strategy aimed at raising awareness of circus arts and increasing audiences. The festival’s financial viability lies in its ability to take a multi-faceted approach: artistic education, paid entry for venue performances and free entry for street performances, partnerships and organising events in schools. Guest performers play their part by running workshops for locals, working with young people in public and private schools. During the day, the RICA also include touring children’s shows in schools and introductory sessions for pupils.
In 2020, the RICA offered up a diverse, international line-up, with the Institut français’s stage giving pride of place to African troupes from across the continent: the Madagascan company Zolobe with Sakasaka, Térya Circus from Guinea-Conakry with Ikawana, and equestrian circus performances from Madi Dermé from Burkina Faso with Je me souviens. Four European and North-American acts added yet more texture to the offering: the Parisian Académie Fratellini, Métis’Gwa from Guadeloupe, Georges Momboye, Ino Kollektiv’s seven young European performers, and the Cirque Kalabanté, who left Guinea to go live and work in Canada. This edition’s highlight was unquestionably No Limits, the National Circus of Ivory Coast’s very first show. Developed by choreographer Georges Momboye3, the show thrilled audiences, providing a shining example of the movement currently underway to create a serious circus sector in Ivory Coast. The industry’s professionals are still in a fragile position, and are looking to consolidate their skills, resources and organisation. But while this may be true, the third edition of the RICA is indisputable proof of an effective foothold in the Ivorian capital, home to an international festival, national circus, and emerging young teams.
Cirque National de Côte d'Ivoire, "No limits", TV5 monde documentary, 2020
Although some parts of the puzzle may be missing, such as venues, funding, public policy supporting circus arts, and new skill-sets to bolster amateur and professional training opportunities, other pieces are clearly in place: drive, skills, audience numbers that are steadily rising year on year, schools and institutions keen to get involved, and a handful of determined figureheads such as Chantal Djédjé, Georges Momboye, and others.
As a result, by holding international professional meet-ups for the first time as part of this third edition of the KAHWA event, corun with the Circostrada network as part of the festival, the RICA are taking a stand, and are already playing a decisive role in Africa’s circus scene.
“Pan-African collaboration is now underway” for circus arts
Chantal Djédjé’s comment following the KAHWA#3 meeting on 6 March offers a neat summary of the atmosphere that reigned at the meetings, and the concrete plans that emerged from them in terms of initiatives to be launched within the next two to three years. Enriching discussions tackled four pressing aspects for the African continent: communication, facilitating access to circus arts for new audiences, creating apparatus and the relationships between traditional practices and contemporary circus. The participants – RICA performers, representatives from the MASA, and local and international cultural stakeholders – spent an entire day debating and exchanging at La Fabrique Culturelle, which offered them a warm welcome. Brainstorming sessions drew on thoughts offered up by participants from Benin, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Guadeloupe, France, England, the United States, Guinea, Canada, Morocco, Algeria, Portugal and Italy, and led to a number of avenues to be explored.
The first avenue involves pan-African research, particularly into apparatus and endogenous practices similar to circus arts on the continent. The second avenue looks at organising communication and promotion across the Abobo neighborhood The stakes realities of circus arts in Ivory Coast and Africa 9 continent by forging ties between existing festivals, showcasing performers and companies, encouraging individuals to set up national federations, and establishing a pan-African association. The routes to achieving this are facilitating information-sharing, boosting the visibility of artistic initiatives and working to promote circus arts on a continental scale. The third avenue concerns the issue of designing and developing acts and shows, with the emphasis 1 See interview page 12 with Massidi Adiatou from the N’Soleh company 2 See page 17 Puppetry in the public space - Interview with Ivoire Marionnettes and its artistic director, Soro Badrissa on finding new partners and reinforcing means of production. The fourth avenue focuses on artistic training in circus arts by circus professionals, and artistic, technical and professional training for young teams.
Three concrete projects in development emerged from these talks, and have not been significantly slowed down by the global Covid-19 pandemic that erupted just after the RICA and the MASA. Plans for a tripartite production with Fekat Circus (Ethiopia), Georges Momboye (Ivory Coast) and Sencirk’ (Senegal) have been launched. Alongside this, joint efforts are now being made to tackle the issue of apparatus, and discussions are continuing around the idea of setting up an “African Federation for Circus Arts”. See you at the next RICA!
2020 RICA Fifth day Documentary
Circus arts and art in the public space at the MASA
The MASA, a major international highlight, took over from these Abidjan festivities from 7 March. To open this African Market for the Performing Arts (MASA), a parade snaked its way through the sprawling district of Abobo, magnificently orchestrated by ar tist and choreographer Massidi Adiatou1. Local creativity in all its glorious diversity was revealed and showcased at this event that brought together artists, residents, amateurs, clubs and societies, and dance and music schools as they followed their lord of the dance and his team, decked out in brightly-coloured and often outlandish costumes, performing their meticulously choreographed and rehearsed dances as they went. The overall effect was one of lightness and joy, the thrill of transgression in the spirit of carnival, and pride in taking part in a national and international event. The procession included a giant puppet designed and animated by the company Ivoire Marionnettes, and animated by artist Soro Badrissa2.
Massidi Adiatou is something of a pied piper. Along with N’Soleh, his company based in the Yopougon district, he works with young urban dancers and acrobats to create shows that are performed at street level as well as in venues. His latest offering, Faro-Faro, was included in the MASA, much to the delight of audiences and the Circostrada delegation in particular. A number of other street arts and circus arts performers featured in the MASA lineup, such as Moroccan circus and parkour performer Said Mouhssine and his Routine, and Patricia Gomis, founder of the Djarama association in southern Dakar in Senegal, and an artist who fuses object puppetry, street arts and circus arts. Yet the MASA’s vibrant, multi-faceted atmosphere didn’t allow for any particular focus on a given art form. As French-speaking Africa’s only artistic market, the MASA is single-handedly responsible for being present on all fronts. Every two years, it introduces the general public and professionals from around the world to shows and acts sourced from 40 different countries, encompassing all performing art forms, including music. This is a formidable challenge indeed, and conditions are often limited with respect to the venues and resources available, despite a large number of partners and sponsors, and the support of Ivory Coast’s Ministry for Culture.
Faro-Faro, Compagnie N'soleh, 2019
The second event in this KAHWA#3 lineup was part of the professional networking sessions run by the MASA, and brought together circus arts, street theatre and puppetry artists and producers. Discussions paved the way for participants to share their experiences of the different festivals and networks popping up across the continent’s sub-region. Speakers of note included Amélie Tapsoba, chair of the ACMUR collective and member of the Ma Rue network, Mario Barnaba, representing the FNAS (Italy’s national federation for street arts), Stéphane Segreto-Aguilar for Circostrada, Chantal Djédjé for the RICA and Richard Djoudi from Térya Circus, for the development of circus arts. What is clear is just how important it is to foster intra-African networks of cultural stakeholders in order to champion the development priorities of each artistic sector.
Assets and barriers in the development of circus arts
Let’s get back to circus arts basics in Africa, as explored by the KAHWA#3 events and meetings with the artists and participants who attended. Circus arts in African countries have enjoyed powerful social resonance. This is an art form that has been fostered in-depth through international cooperation – with Canada first, and later with Europe – due to its ability to inspire energy and creativity, particularly among young people, those who are disenfranchised, street children and those from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Because of this, in the 1980s/1990s, the NGO Jeunesse du Monde, associated with the Cirque du Soleil, funded and backed a large-scale programme to bring circus training and workshops to the general public in many countries, including Guinea-Conakry, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin and Ethiopia.
Other initiatives, instigated in a context of bilateral cooperation by institutions such as the Pôle National Cirque et Arts de la Rue d’Amiens (France), bolstered programmes with similar aims: the Faso Cirque association in Burkina Faso is a fantastic example of this. Drawing on the training and schemes they enjoyed access to over a twenty-year period, the companies still in existence today are generally confined to running two types of service in order to survive: community programmes in refugee camps or with street children; and private services for events, or training pupils in private schools.
Despite aspiring to create shows and productions, these teams struggle to find the right partners, and means of production are severely lacking across the continent. Consequently, many circus performers – often some of the most talented – head for Europe, Canada or the United States to pursue their careers. Over the past thirty years, countries such as Guinea-Conakry and Ethiopia have seen a number of circus schools and companies created, which have produced many artists and performers while providing their invaluable community and educational services. Yet despite spectacular productions that tour the world, such as those developed by Circus Ethiopia1 and Circus Baobab2, heavy blows to budgets and national policies added to occasional conflicts within the teams have hindered the sector in developing a sustainable structure. The solution to preventing this creative brain drain and structural difficulties lies in rooting the sector in several different African counties.
The only way this can happen is if States and their cultural ministries experience a shift in outlook, and through acknowledgement of the creative potential of circus arts beyond events and community initiatives, which would usher in supportive policies tailored to each country. In addition, backers via European and international cooperation engaged in the cultural industries must also take into account the sector’s creative needs, by recognising the resources required in terms of training, production and awareness-building or communication.
With this in mind, establishing a federation for circus arts3 through the continent’s network of artists and operators could lead to cross-disciplinary artistic and managerial training programmes that would strengthen leaders’ ability to develop appropriate economies. This would need to go hand in hand with efforts to showcase productions and promote existing festivals. UCLG Africa4 intends to work with this approach as part of its “African Capitals of Culture” initiative, via structural programmes for specific sectors between editions5.
Circus arts and art in the public space: opportunities and outlook in Africa
Circus and street arts have the capacity to reach the most diverse types of audience imaginable, from the Madagascan countryside to the streets of Dakar. The people who founded these companies and bring them to life understand rural living, such as the Zolobe company, or the urban experience, such as the Sencirk’ performers in Dakar. They all have skills, and are determined to make a living from their art with a humanistic vision that is in keeping with a deep involvement in their communities. The scene’s focus today is more cultural than it is social, taking inspiration from endogenous artistic trends, and tales, stories and feats embedded in ancient practices, sometimes tinged with spiritual and initiatory aspects.
Because of this connection to a range of “traditional” source materials and a varied selection of disciplines shaped and moulded by urban life, immigration, the Internet and digital communication, circus performers – whether clowns, acrobats, dancers or musicians – are at the epicentre of the developmental challenges faced by the African continent today. Participating artists at the RICA and MASA are their spokespeople. The KAHWA#3 events, and the creative and unifying projects that are emerging from within them, are a highly positive and exciting sign of a landscape in the making.
The stakes realities of Circus Arts in Ivory Coast and Africa
by Claudine Dussollier