Polaris Dance Theatre held its 10th Annual Galaxy Dance Festival this weekend and in response to the social distancing regulations that are in place, went VIRTUAL! The festival which was aired on Facebook Live was filled with a diverse schedule of dance companies that included genres such as West African, Bollywood, Bharatanatyam and Odissi, Kathak and Afro-Brazilian, Contemporary, and more. The organizations that presented dance pieces hailed from Oregon, Washington, New York, Canada, and beyond! For the first time, participants were able to participate in a Q & A, listen to insight from the artists and their choreographers, and explore the rich diversity that dance has to offer the world, all from the comfort of their own home! WACAI kicked off the Virtual Festival at 11 am with two video clips; one of Alseny doing a solo to the rhythm Yamama at the Oregon Country Fair’s Gypsy Stage and one of Ballets Africains dancing Fere Koroba at the Centre Culturel Franco-Guineen in the capital city of Conakry. Because of a previous commitment, Alseny wasn’t able to attend the festival’s live stream, but conducted an interview a few days prior and the transcript was read instead at the time of the Q & A. To read the interview transcript translated into English from Susu, Alseny’s native language and learn more about Alseny’s former training and life in Guinea, read on!
Question: Can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself?
Alseny Yansane: My name is Alseny Yansane. I come from Guinea, West Africa and was born and raised in the capital city of Conakry. I am from the Susu people which is the third largest ethnic group in Guinea. I worked with the world-renowned Ballets Africains for fourteen years and have traveled to many places around the globe to represent traditional Guinean culture like you saw in the first video. I love the dance, music, and culture from my homeland and am passionate about sharing it with audiences and students who are receptive and respectful.
Question: Can you describe what your training in Guinea looked like?
Alseny Yansane: My training actually began as a drummer when I was around seven years old. In Guinea we say that the drumming and the dancing are married together so you cannot have one without the other. As a kid with very little means I learned to play the traditional rhythms on really big, empty tomato paste cans flipped upside down. Back then my older brother had a drum and dance group who played at folkloric events, that celebrated rites of passage like weddings and baby naming ceremonies which inspired me to form my own group with kids from my neighborhood. Our group would walk from neighborhood to neighborhood challenging the groups of kids we would find gathered outside to a drum and dance battle and always seemed to win. Shortly afterwards, my older brother invited me to join his group and I learned a lot through watching him drum and dance and by just getting out there to show what I had learned in local and regional competitions.
I am thankful to have come up as an artist in the time of Sekou Toure, Guinea’s first president. Historically, this was an era when art and cultural appreciation and cultivation were at an all-time high and the training that artists received was rigorous and systematic. We had to compete on a national level annually as a way of moving up to higher levels of artistic status. These competitions were held in the heart of downtown Conakry where I lived and attracted groups from all over Guinea who represented specific art and culture from various regions and ethnic groups. Over the years I worked with numerous “private ballets” before I was recruited to and passed the audition for entry into Ballets Africains, one of four national companies at the time.
Question: What would your average day look like?
Alseny Yansane: A typical day in a life for me would look something like this: I would get up in the morning and make my way by foot to rehearsal, sometimes walking over an hour to get there. Meeting up with other artists along the way en route to rehearsal and talking amongst ourselves made the long walk much shorter. Often times I would leave the house without eating any breakfast because my family didn’t have the means to provide too much more than the main, mid-day meal of rice and sauce. This is how it was for most of us artists in Guinea. We’d get by through sharing just about everything, especially food, so if I wasn’t able to eat at home or if I didn’t have any pocket money from a gig the night before, someone in the group would help me get something into my belly before it started to ache.
Our drum and dance rehearsals would be for 2-3 hours Monday-Friday, sometimes even on Saturday and were held in multi-purpose buildings whose cement or tile floors would be in various stages of disrepair. Even so, we always danced barefoot and did all kinds of acrobatics, like dive rolls and flips on that hard surface and there were no tumbling mats! After my morning rehearsal where I trained very intensely ended, I would have some time to make my way to the next rehearsal of the group where I was Artistic Director, stopping off at a friend’s house to eat some rice and sauce and possibly take a nap.
After the second rehearsal I would typically go home to regroup and get ready for my folkloric group’s evening gig. I was the General Director of my folkloric group which meant I was responsible for sub-contracting all of the artists who included traditional drummers, praise singers, guitarists, balafonists, keyboard players, and dancers. I also had to communicate and plan the event with the person who did the hiring and negotiate the price. I also had to find a sound system to rent and an available technician to do sound for the event as well as do the maintenance and repair on the outdoor lighting. This literally involved a lot of leg work leading up to the event due to the fact that home phones didn’t really exist and cell phones technology hadn’t made its way to Guinea yet. During the gig I would play drums, manage the artists and crowd energy. At the end of the gig I would count and divide up the money collected from the various guests putting tips into the platter during their praise song processions, pay the artists, and get all the equipment back home. The next day I’d wake up and do it all again!
Question: You had mentioned earlier your involvement in private ballets and national groups. Can you explain what a “private ballet” is and how it differs from a national company?
Alseny Yansane: Guinea has 2 types of traditional drumming and dancing: village style and ballet style. In the village style, drummers play the traditional rhythms at community celebrations where guests circle around and jump into the middle one-by-one or two-by-two to dance only one or two simple moves before yielding the dance space to someone else. The ballet style was developed in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city where musical arrangements were created to embellish village rhythms and complex dance steps were created and strung together in long dance sequences to fill a stage with choreography and technical floor patterns.
In ballet style, there are “private ballets” which are also known as amateur groups that feed into the “national ballets” which are professional companies that are sponsored by the Guinean government and have national and international touring companies that are considered to be “cultural ambassadors”. Even though the national companies are sponsored by the government, unfortunately, only the administrative staff receives a small stipend and the artists remain for the most part, unpaid.
Question: How has recent events affected you as an artist or your work?
Alseny Yansane: The Corona virus has made it very difficult for me as an artist. Since the shut down in March I have had contracts for school residencies and performances cancelled and haven’t been able to teach my community classes in the same way as before. Our organization has offered several online options, but they just don’t seem to translate in the same way as in person and it has taken some trial and error to work through various technical difficulties. I really look forward to a time when folks can get together to drum and dance freely without the fear of getting sick!
Also, since the death of George Floyd and the others I have experienced both positive and negative changes. On the one hand it’s great to see an increase in support for Black Lives Matter, but I have also felt the effects of the backlash. I don’t always feel safe going outside to get the exercise I need to stay fit as a dancer because I have been harassed recently and I sometimes feel like a target because there aren’t many black folks in Oregon so I stand out. The studio where I teach my dance classes has been vandalized with racial slurs and that makes me nervous for myself and my 16-year-old son as well as our black students. As an African immigrant I have a different history of being black and it has been very sad and depressing to learn about the reality of race relations here in the US. Sometimes it just makes me want to leave and go back to Guinea.
On the positive side, there seems to be an increase in white communities and organizations to do better by us and make more of an effort to support and highlight our work. I really appreciate this a lot as it makes the severity of everything we are dealing with more manageable. I urge folks to continue to come through for us because we have a long road ahead and need justice in order to be truly free as artists and as people.