When Bessie Award–winning choreographer-dancer Souleymane Badolo went back to Burkina Faso this September, it wasn't a typical homecoming. For one thing, there was a military coup. Just before a scheduled election, the army tried to overthrow the government, and suddenly Badolo was protesting in the streets of Ouagadougou, running from soldiers and being beaten on the sidewalks of his own city. He still suffers from a knee injury sustained in those protests, and while the country-wide activism was successful (the Burkinabé elected a new president on November 29), no one would blame him for lingering anger. Yet in work and in conversation, Badolo insists on connection and gentleness, a clear-eyed affection for his former home—and a kind of hard-won calm.
Badolo's latest, long-gestating work Yimbégré (Mooré for “beginning” or “rooting place”) plunges into complexities of being West African. Badolo and dancer (and fellow expat) Sylvestre Koffitse Akakpo-Adzaku start at opposite corners of the BAM Fisher space and then are drawn inexorably together by the musician Mamoudou Konate, who sits drumming amid a pile of calabashes at the center of the square room. The movement seems to contain secrets: at times, Badolo's gestures become desperate, and he stumbles against Akakpo's body; at others, Akakpo reveals hidden musical instruments or Badolo springs suddenly onto the other's shoulders. At a recent rehearsal, Badolo (who goes by “Solo”) joked in French, took comments from his friend the choreographer Nora Chipaumire (she paid particular attention to Akakpo's luxuriously slow first movements), and—usually laughing—talked about the ideas that animate this ambitious work.
You have performed versions of this piece before. Do you have more work to do?
Yes—sometimes I'm not sure about a section, and I do have to keep working. So, when I get home, sitting in the subway, or in the bathroom… You know, my favorite part is sitting in the bathroom. [Laughs] Sitting there, I spend a lot of time thinking about my work. [Interviewer laughs] It's true! It may be funny, but I think it's one of the place where human beings can truly be yourself and think seriously.
The piece involves two dancers dancing first apart—separated by the entire BAM Fisher space—then in unison, and then in a sometimes awkward, sometimes ecstatic partnering. Is there a narrative here?
Yes. The narrative is that I'm trying to talk about is “the African” in general, or the one who lives in the city—about being metropolitan. Myself, I live in an African city, the capital Ougoudougou, and we have influences coming from Western countries, colonial influences and what is traditional. We put all those cultures together to have our own culture—and that is the city. My costume [an ornately decorated tunic of palest, palest pink] is a mix between tradition and modernity and the global; it's what a wealthy person in a West African city might wear. The other dancer Sylvestre is a metropolitan with a buttoned-up shirt, like someone living in Paris or Rome. And the musician [Konate] is a bridge between us, a nice shirt with—I was going to say African fabric, though of course it's actually from England and the Netherlands, but then Africans started using it. People say it is African fabric!
So you are aspects of the city dweller?
We're talking about traveling. Sylvestre is in another city, say New York city or some European capital. And then the musician for me is our home town, the land, Africa. When I jump to Sylvestre, it's not that I jump up to go to another place. It's that I step in Africa, and I go to him so that we can stay together. All of us [Badolo, Akakpo and Konate] live in New York now, but matter how far we travel, there is still a connection to Africa. Even if we've been in the U.S. 100 years, we still can't give something to someone with our left hand because that's disrespectful! That idea remains. And so I'm thinking about how we touch our culture, and sometimes being African is difficult.
How can it be difficult?
I'm from Burkina Faso; Mamoudou is also from Burkina; Sylvestre is from Togo (though he was my dancer in my company for two years in Burkina)—and in those places, it can be so difficult to show what you are. Sometimes the artists and the dancers who are in my world are gay or bisexual, but they have problems showing themselves. In my country you can not tell someone, “I'm gay!” unless the person is a close, close friend. And what I'm trying to say is, “Be who you are! Don't think about what people are going to say!” I want them to express themselves. I want to talk about this, though it is not cultural for us. Now, there is no border for the world. With the internet, everyone is connected to everybody—now we have nothing to hide! Live your life.
Did the events during the coup change how you feel about Burkina Faso?
You know, I voted one time in my life: it was the referendum for multi-party democracy. And then, after that, I had no chance to vote—because this President [Blaise Compaoré] was in power for 27, more than 27 years. I grow up seeing this guy in power, and now I'm tired.
Is that anger in your work?
I try a little bit, because I try to denounce violence, I try to talk about it. This “violence” in the movement I make—you know, when you get to a certain age in your life, you can not react like young people, like the 20-something or even 30. How you react is not the same thing; you have more wisdom than young people. It changes how you move. You know, I'm religious! I'm Muslim [Clasps his prayer beads]. I pray five times a day, fasting the whole month. I'm not afraid to talk about this. I know that people are afraid, and it's almost like—in Burkina, when people are talking about being gay, they are afraid to be gay. In this country, people are afraid to be Muslim! And yet, we have to respect each other and live our life. This is the real life for the human.
Is this why the piece opens with Mamoudou calling “Salaam Alaikum” and the two of you responding from the darkness?
As in the Muslim way, it's Salaam Alaikum, peace be with you. And you know, when we call, we're not all speaking the same language. Mamoudou is saying something in a language slightly different from what I say, and yet—it's peaceful! It's peaceful. We must talk to the next generation—even when you are far, you are near. Talk low, talk softer to the people who are near to you.