Art

Ballet meets contemporary African dance at Kenya National Theatre

Sarakasi Dancers in Dance EXtravaganza with Ballet Kenya Studio at Kenya National Theatre, 13.3.21

Sarakasi Dancers in Dance EXtravaganza with Ballet Kenya Studio at Kenya National Theatre. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • Once Ballet Kenya Studio chose to team up with Sarakasi Trust to stage a performance highlighting the best of both groups, comparing and contrasting the two was bound to take place.
  • One troupe being prime and proper, the other wild and raucous, it was clear from the moment we got to see first, the ballerinas and then, the contemporary dancers that the show would alternate in high contrasts.

It wasn’t a fair fight!

Not that last Saturday’s ‘Dance Extravaganza’ should have been seen as a battle between two different dance companies and two different schools of thought. 

But inevitably, once Ballet Kenya Studio chose to team up with Sarakasi Trust to stage a performance highlighting the best of both groups, comparing and contrasting the two was bound to take place.

One troupe being prime and proper, the other wild and raucous, it was clear from the moment we got to see first, the ballerinas and then, the contemporary dancers that the show would alternate in high contrasts.

The main difference between the two sets of dancers is that one set are students while the other are seasoned professionals. What they have in common is that both are technically made up of dancers and both deserve to have a higher public profile for all the hard work they put in to training young Kenyan talents.

But after that, the differences are glaring and sharp. BKS is deeply grounded in the Western tradition of ballet while Sarakasi has specialized in developing African contemporary dance for well over a decade. 

sarakasi dancers in Dance Extravaganza at Kenya National Theatre, 13 March 2021

Sarakasi Dancers in Dance Extravaganza at Kenya National Theatre. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The ballet emphasizes grace, poise, carefully measured movements, and elegance of form. In contrast, the choreography of Sarakasi focuses on fast, percussive, rhythmic, and perfectly measured but apparently wild body activity as every muscle, sinew, and limb seems to be in constant high-speed motion.

That brings to mind the choreographers who are all experienced dancers as well as dance designers. But again, ballet director Charmaine Smith is steeped in the Western tradition, having performed all over the world before becoming a teacher, choreographer and founder of BKS just a decade ago.

Sarakasi’s team of choreographers are both Kenyans. Oscar Mwalo and Aggie the Dance Queen are seasoned dancers who have been with the Trust for years. But their specialty is fusing extreme athleticism and acrobatics with contemporary African dance to bring a style of performance that is uniquely Sarakasi’s.

Then comes the costuming. BKS dancers were dressed simply in leotards, tights, and tutus for the girls and tights and white t-shirts for the young men. The girls were mainly in black which probably would have worked well for the young males as well since their white shirts looked too casual for a KNT production.

Again, in contrast, Sarakasi dancers wore brightly colored African designs and changed their costuming for nearly every single number they performed.

Thoughtfully designed so as to not get in the way of their rigorous dance workouts or acrobatic flips and splits, their costume changes caused interruptions in the flow of the production. But an eager audience was pleasantly patient with the lapses and minor waits.

Sarakasi dancers at KNT in Dance Extravaganza, 13 march 2021

Sarakasi dancers at KNT in Dance Extravaganza. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

One of the biggest contrasts between the alternating performances was the music. One was utterly Western with songs like ‘I could have danced all night’ from “My Fair Lady” and Adele’s James Bond theme song, “When the sky Falls.” Beautiful music and graceful dance. 

But the pace quickly picked up once Sarakasi’s percussive selections, mainly West African sounds, introduced another hot number, performed by youth prepared to pour out all their passion and love of storytelling using their bodies to narrate their various storylines.

Finally, the age of the dancers also made a difference in the presentation of the alternating sets. The majority of BKS dancers were youngsters and early learners of ballet with no more than six or seven in their teens and early twenties who often shared the stage with the youth. 

Meanwhile, Sarakasi dancers were all probably in their twenties and possibly a few a bit older. The point is they are prime-time young dancers whose priority in life (it could be surmised) is to dance in the most dazzling and eye-popping style. And to dance professionally is probably their dream of a lifetime.

So the Dance Extravaganza was an opportunity to see two very different genres of dancing right here in Nairobi. Both dance centres are run by remarkable women. Charmaine Smith is originally from down south and moved here in 2010, while Marion Op het Veld is from Holland and has been based at the Sarakasi Dome for over two decades.

Her dancers perform both locally at the Dome (former Shah Cinema) and privately at corporate functions as well as abroad when invited to festivals and international fairs.