13.1.2021   |  Art And About Africa

Mavoungou Amaël | the Gabonese contemporary animist choreographer

Art and About Africa team has interviewed Mavoungou Amaël, the Gabonese contemporary animist choreographer of the dance company DIBOBE and the art director of the association ALÛBY: Danse et Environnement, especially known by his nickname Alûby.

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Through his peculiar and modern choreographic style which combines ritual dances of his homeland and contemporary movements, Mavoungou Amaël’s goal is to acknowledge people around the world about the still unknown tradition of Gabon.

As regards his artistic career, Mavoungou Amaël defines himself as a contemporary animist dancer-choreographer. This means that at the basis of his choreographic research, focused on the animist dances of Gabon, there is his exploration of feelings and emotions related to social events. It is by working precisely on the social and political contexts, but also on the denunciation of acts carried out by African authorities in power, that the choreographer does not want to give lessons of politics or to enter inside the political debates, but rather he looks for expressing the expectations and the hopes of society through the subjective propositions which are born from a confrontation between his experience of things and the collective social reality.

Born in Port-Gentil, the second biggest town of Gabon, it was at the age of 17 that Mavoungou Amaël began to use the traditional dance of his homeland for the purpose of sharing his culture with the rest of the world. To reach his goal, he joined the theatrical, musical and choreographic research workshop Nzi-Nimbu with the choreographer Nziengui Evariste, whose troupe excels in safeguarding Gabon’s traditional heritage. After several years of learning and performing traditional and contemporary dances with this troupe and after having become a dancer-performer in the Jbag association (Juste Bouger Artistiquement au Gabon), it was obvious to Mavoungou Amaël that dancing should have been his real job.
In 2003 he co-created the company Mbolo’h with Peter Nkoghe, with which he realized a unique show entitled “Espoir”. Thanks to this production, he comprehended his lack of expertise in the choreographic field and, consequently, he fulfilled this gap towards a more targeted training. Together with other artists, he also attended the Ecole des sables in Senegal, directed by Germaine Acogny, in order to develop an African contemporary dance related to his roots and to those of the other participating artists.
For what concerns his own works, he created the “Cie Dibobe” in 2005 and choreographed the plays “Quiçuige?”, “Duo Soli”, “Plainte contre X”, “Peperi En Ofthalmoïs” (in Eng. pepper in the eyes), “Les lermes du ventre” (still a work in progress). All these works – of which Mavoungou Amaël is the principal performer – have the denunciation of the oppressions that undermine the society as leitmotif. In the meanwhile, he also acted in the choreography “Libre” by Nathalie Mangwa, he co-created the choreography Rouvi for the “Bal Moderne” of Angers and danced for celebrating 30 years of “Video-Danse” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
He graduated in Master Arts and specialized in music and dance. He also attended the National Centre of Contemporary Dance of Angers, under the direction of Emmanuelle Huynh and in partnership with the University Paris VIII and with the School of Fine Arts of Angers.

To describe his artistic research, he compares it to the flight of a butterfly: in its process of transformation in a butterfly who can fly, the caterpillar stops, forages, takes and analyses information about everything around it. Then, the insect re-takes flight searching for new sensations, other surfaces, other perceptions, other palpable or unpalpable materials. Hence, as the caterpillar does, also Mavoungou Amaël employs all his impressions in order to express its dance.
It is through dance that he is capable to speak to himself and to the others, he uses his body to witness the emotions that he feels as a reflection of his sensations. He makes movements toward north-south-east-west directions so as to approach all social layers. In this way, his body is able to poetize different universes by avoiding the possibility that his movements get lost on stage.
He is artistically imbued with this lifestyle to try to improve and to refine himself. Moreover, he continues to question his own artistic career like the lifestyle of a chameleon, which could have as the slogan “slowly but surely”.

AAAA: Where does the inspiration for your choreography come from?
MA: I take inspiration for my dance movements from what I daily live, from what I perceive, from the emotions I feel and from what I hear in my everyday life as a human being.

A very peculiar feature of his personal approach to choreographic art as a dancer and a contemporary animist choreographer is that Mavoungou Amaël dances alone and that the shadows which follow him on stage are not only made by light effects. His choreographic approach links the animist, sacred and contemporary universes. His artistic practice takes its bases back to initiatory dances from ancient rituals of his homeland, Gabon.
However, he does not just reproduce the rhythmic gesture of traditional dances: he also pursues a spiritual picture which is made up of the invocation of souls, bodies and past ancestors. He does this not just to communicate with them, but also and especially to question his daily life and the Beings surrounding him. This means that he speaks with his demons – good or bad demons – and he uses dance not to create a link with something invisible, but rather to link the memory of his body with the souls of his own history and so with his socio-economic and political daily life.
Furthermore, he believes that dance acts as a medicine: it can groom the wounds of people and of their history.

AAAA: Have dance and choreography a strong presence in Gabon?
MA: Yes. But, compared with other African countries (such as Burkina-Faso, Senegal, Tunisia etc.), the development of dance in Gabon is almost non-existent. Thus, although motivated by certain individualities given by some artists, it is struggling to truly emerge – and this question has been stirring the Gabonese choreographic scene for several years.
Indeed, apart from traditional dances, which remain “present” and are firmly anchored in social life, even more, young choreographers and dancers coming from various backgrounds wish to develop a new approach to dance.
However, the Ministry of Culture’s action, despite its will to help the choreographic sector, is limited by its budget, its cultural and governmental priorities. As a result, subsidies are virtually non-existent, the cultural policy lacks a real influence and the choreographic approach struggles to develop.

AAAA: Do you think that there are some references to the Gabonese tradition in the contemporary dance developed in your country?
MA: In terms of human references (I mean, choreographic dancers), there were some references. However, now almost all traditional references are not part of the choreographic scene anymore.

All in all, by describing himself as a “contemporary animist dancer”, he refers to a mix of genres between a traditional and a socio-contemporary choreography.
By combining research in psychology (especially on memory and on the trauma of bodies) with traditional ritualisation, he proposes a dance which is halfway between the court and exorcism. First and foremost, dancing is a way for him to face his own demons. In this way, the artist always drags the spectators in his wake, making them both witnesses and judges.
While his body trembles and pants, leading the spectators to think that what is happening on stage is not real, his voice raises and warns us. Crying, singing or complaining, it carries the word of a whole population, whose history has not sufficiently been told yet.


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