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Germaine Acogny on Choosing to Be the Chosen One

In it, Ms. Acogny recites from “Discourse on Colonialism,” a caustic 1955 essay by the Martinican activist and intellectual Aimé Césaire. It’s a passage about how colonizers (like the French in Senegal), in thinking of the colonized as beasts, become beasts themselves.


Ms. Agocny’s school, École des Sables (School of the Sands), in a fishing village in Senegal.

Helmut Vogt

But, to choose among issues, doesn’t a French male choreographer imposing his vision on an African female performer risk replicating the colonial relationships that the Césaire text condemns?

Presented with that question in a recent phone interview, Ms. Acogny, speaking from Senegal, laughed but calmly rejected the premise. “It’s not colonization,” she said. “It’s my choice.”

Choosing How to Move

Being inside the “pagan story” of “Rite,” she explained, was a way of honoring her ancestors, particularly her father’s mother, a Yoruba priestess she never met. When a dove appeared at Ms. Acogny’s birth, her family saw it as a sign of this grandmother’s return.

Many of Ms. Acogny’s shows have addressed that African heritage. But it was in Paris, where she was studying to be a physical education teacher, that she discovered dance as a discipline. The year was 1962, and after three years of training in harmonic gymnastics (a now defunct French method), ballet and modern dance, she returned to her newly independent homeland and looked at African dance and its surrounding culture with new eyes, learning as much as she could.

Not everything appealed to her. When her husband took a second wife, she demanded a divorce. To support herself and her two children, she began teaching dance in her backyard. Soon, she created her first solo. “It was a way to break free,” she told Radio France Internationale last year.

The solo was based on the poem “Femme Noire” (“Black Woman”) by Léopold Sedar Senghor, who was not just a poet but also the president of Senegal. When Ms. Acogny wrote him for permission to use the poem, she suggested that his cultural project of Négritude, or African pride, needed more dance, and that she was the woman for the job.


A workshop at École des Sables, the school Ms. Acogny runs.

Antoine Tempè

Senghor sent her for approval to his friend Béjart (whose father was French-Senegalese), and when Senghor and Béjart founded Mudra Afrique in 1977, they hired Ms. Acogny to teach African dance. When foreign teachers tried to take over her classes, though, she threatened to quit unless she was made sole director. Béjart put her in charge.

Both Béjart and Senghor wrote prefaces to “Danse Africaine,” the groundbreaking photo-illustrated textbook that Ms. Acogny published in 1980. In that book, she resisted the stereotype of African dance as natural and spontaneous; it had rules and forms to be analyzed, taught and studied. Her vision was a Pan-African synthesis that borrowed from Europe as well. Although deeply rooted in tradition, it was not a return to roots, she insisted, but an innovative approach for the Africa of skyscrapers. “Like everything else, African dance evolves,” she wrote.

Not long after Senghor resigned in 1980, the financing for Mudra Afrique dried up. That, Ms. Acogny said in our interview, is why she never appeared in Béjart’s “Rite.” She moved back to France, where she married a German man, Helmut Vogt, with whom she founded a school near Toulouse.

In the late 1990s, she and Mr. Vogt established École des Sables, School of the Sands, in a fishing village south of Dakar, the Senegalese capital. At first, there was no electricity or running water. They held classes on the beach. Now, in an open-air studio with a floor of sand, students learn Germaine Acogny technique, just as students elsewhere learn the technique of Martha Graham.

It’s a grounded style, centered in the spine, which Ms. Acogny calls “the serpent of life.” Metaphors from nature abound in her teaching. A favorite is the kapok tree: strongly rooted, with branches that reach toward the sky. In “Iya Tunde: The Mother Came Back,” a new documentary about her, Ms. Acogny directs her students’ attention to the tree’s beauty but also to its protective prickles. She’s characterizing her technique but could be talking about herself.

The Mother Comes Back

With her company, Jant-Bi, Ms. Acogny has collaborated with German, Japanese and African-American choreographers. These collaborations, which have been performed in New York, have taken on difficult subjects (genocide, the legacy of slavery), yet “Mon Élue Noire” seems particularly loaded.


Olivier Dubois, the choreographer of “Mon Élue Noire” (“My Black Chosen One”), to Stravinsky.

Ric Lovino

“They call her Mama Germaine,” Mr. Dubois, 45, offered at the start of his interview. “But to me she is my little girl.”

How did Ms. Acogny contribute to Mr. Dubois’s work? “The choreography and the intention is all mine,” he said. “But the flesh and blood of the piece is her. It can only be done by her. And it’s not a tribute. She’s not from the past. She’s the future, an artist with a political voice I want people to hear.”

The extent to which she can express that voice through Mr. Dubois’s work may be a question for viewers, but not for Ms. Acogny. “The question doesn’t exist for me,” she said. “Olivier is my equal. Just because he is a white choreographer doesn’t mean I can’t express my négritude.”

When Mr. Dubois first proposed his idea to Ms. Acogny, she was skeptical, she said, because of her age — just as she had been skeptical when Béjart chose her because of her limited classical training. Asked to describe the rehearsal process, she focused on her difficulty counting the music, laughing at herself in retrospect.

Her manner may be humble, but her influence is large. Over the past 20 years, there’s been an explosion in contemporary African dance, much of it in the locally rooted yet exploratory mode Ms. Acogny pioneered. Just in the past month, New York has seen examples by the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula, the Rwanda-born Dorothée Munyaneza and the Zimbabwe-born Nora Chipaumire.

“It is not only through me,” Ms. Acogny said. But what about “the mother of contemporary African dance” title?

“Yes, they call me that, and I accept it,” she said. “Without pride, and without undue modesty,” she added, laughing some more.

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