The Conakry Ballet Tradition-"CKY Corner" Series

Andrea DiPalma Yansane
February 22, 2022

In Guinea music and dance go hand in hand and are inseparable acts of expression performed at every community gathering or rite of passage except funerals where it is strictly forbidden. This is true in the villages throughout the country as well as in the capital city of Conakry. People gather to commemorate a life’s event, like a wedding or a baby naming ceremony and celebrate together as families, friends, and neighbors by hiring musicians to come play the traditional instruments like djembe, dundun, balafon, and kora or more modern instruments like guitar and keyboards. It is an inevitability that whenever there is music there will be dancing.

There are two similar, yet distinct cultural arts traditions that exists side by side in Guinea: the folkloric tradition and the African ballet tradition. The folkloric tradition is very strong in the villages and is a based on community celebration where traditional, acoustic instruments are played and members of that community come together to dance in the middle of a circle that is formed around the musicians and the people who have gathered. Traditionally, it is the women who take turns jumping into the center of the circle one by one to do two to three repetitive dance steps before yielding the space to someone else. The lead drummer will play a solo for the dancer, marking their feet pattern with percussive accents and giving a drum signal that will initiate the transition from one dance movement to another. Although there is a protocol to this cultural style it is more free form and spontaneous in nature than the ballet tradition which uses some of the same elements but has been developed for the stage.

The African ballet whose tradition is rooted in the folkloric artform started in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s by Fodeba Keita a Guinean poetry student, dancer, choreographer, and musician who was studying abroad in Paris at the time. After many tours throughout Europe, the United States, and Canada the ballet came home to Guinea where promising dancers and musicians from all over the country and across various ethnic groups were recruited for what became known as Les Ballets Africians. Les Ballets Africains, the group that WACAI’s own Alseny Yansane worked with for fourteen years became a medium of national pride and vehicle for representing the rich and diverse Guinean cultural arts to western countries. The Guinean ballet style is characterized by the incorporation of traditional music and dance with a theatrical element that tells an ancient story or dramatizes an aspect of Guinean culture or history. The music is arranged like an orchestra full of percussive and melodic instrumental interludes, dramatic starts and stops, and arrangements that can segue from one unrelated rhythm to another to support and punctuate whatever is happening on stage. The dances are choreographed utilizing the powerful visual premise of “movement ensemble”, floor patterning, and other choreographic elements found in western ballets taking the small canon of simple and repetitive folkloric style steps and developing them into a much wider array of intricate and stylized movement phrases. Les Ballets Africains, one of the very first African ballets ever created, became a model for other countries’ national groups and the golden standard for all such performance groups found throughout Guinea. These ballets, whether partially subsidized by the Guinean government as in the “nation ensembles” or the private ballets who receive no governmental funding but can act as feeder groups into such national assemblies are mostly concentrated in Conakry. The ballet tradition in Conakry is so strong, in fact, that one can find a company in practically every major neighborhood within the capital’s city limits that has a regular rehearsal space and a repertory body of work. This is due to the legacy of the first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sekou Toure who valued the cultural arts as a national treasure, cultivated ahigh artistic standard by holding regular exhibitions and competitions that highlighted groups from all over the country, and held the artists in high regard compensating them accordingly with honors, gifts, and currency.

Thanks to the mentorship of his two elder brothers, Durack and Ousmane Yansane, Alseny was fortunate to have started his artistic career during Sekou Toure’s “Golden Age” and essentially grew up going through the ranks of various Conakry ballets. One of those groups was Ballet Sanke whose director, Tanti Jean Maukally, was a former Ballets Africains performer and oneof the very first females to create and lead a performance ensemble in all of Guinea. Eventually knowing Ballet Sanke’s entire repertoire backwards and forwards landed both Ousmane and Alseny in the positions of artistic directors. Together they ran every aspect of the group’s rehearsals from setting the choreography to fine tuning the music, demonstrating the theatrical elements peppered throughout the program, and training the new artists. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Ballet Sanke during my near seven year stay in Guinea and thanks to Alseny who supported me every step of the way these rehearsals became a place that grounded me and gave me a deeper sense of belonging.

The experience of our family returning to Guinea this summer and connecting with a newly formed drum and dance group who was located close by was amazing and energizing! Alseny, Papa, and I were super excited to engage in the traditional performance arts once again and that each of us was embraced for our individual roles by this welcoming group. Papa trained with the drummers who played for the dancers Andrea worked with. Alseny took on a leadership role and set new choreography, refined dance steps and drum parts, and helped the artists improve their overall technique and stage presence. One day at the end of rehearsal the group surprised us with a traditional kola nut offering and named Alseny and Andrea the honorary father and mother of the group. We were very touched by this gesture and grateful for the opportunity to offer our support and bear witness to the growth of the group.