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‘There is no such thing as the Congo. There is only a river and the large forest.’ After his much-discussed performance Banataba, in the shadow of the Africa Museum in Tervuren last year, Faustin Linyekula turns the spotlight on the genesis of the Congo. For this purpose, the renowned choreographer has worked with Eric Vuillard, the French author of the acclaimed book Congo (2012) on the emergence of the Congolese state. What is remarkable about the narrative is that it is told by a number of notorious colonists, among them explorers Henry Morton Stanley, Charles Lemaire and torturer Léon Fievez. For the performance Congo, Linyekula sets the text by Vuillard in dialogue with contemporary dance material and immersive sound recordings. In doing so he connects this bloody history with its traumatizing consequences for many Congolese today and he reconstructs a landscape you cannot escape as a spectator.

See also: Free School: Inventing Schools #2, a talk with Lia Rodrigues & Faustin Linyekula

Artistic direction: Faustin Linyekula
Text: Eric Vuillard
With: Daddy Moanda Kamono, Faustin Linyekula, Pasco Losanganya
Soundtrack: Franck Moka, Faustin Linyekula
Light direction: Koceila Aouabed
Surtitling: Babel Subtitling 

Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, KVS
Production: Virginie Dupray/Studios Kabako
Coproduction: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Théâtre de la Ville/Festival d’Automne (Paris), Ruhrtriennale, HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin), Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, Le Manège, Scène nationale de Reims, Holland festival (Amsterdam), Festival d'Automne à Paris
With the support of: Centre Dramatique National de Normandie-Rouen, Centre National de la Danse – Pantin (Paris), KVS (Brussels)
With the support of the French Institute and the French Embassy in Belgium, in the frame of Extra

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An interview with Faustin Linyekula

Faustin Linyekula, you’re a dancer, a director and a choreographer but you also describe yourself as a “storyteller”. What was it that interested you in Éric Vuillard’s book Congo?

For quite a while my work has been about the Congo and Africa in general, but for a number of years I’ve been focusing largely on what we Africans have being doing since indepen-dence. It’s not that I’ve forgotten the colonial period, but I’ve avoided tackling it because I didn’t want it to seem that I was using that part of history to justify our inability to run our countries today. I’ve always resisted going into that dark abyss, preferring to pinpoint and emphasise the responsibility we have for our misfortunes in the ruins we ourselves have brought about since the 1960s. When I came across Éric’s writing, beyond the information I was aware of, it was his words, those words that I wanted to bring to the stage one day. I read his book by chance when it came out in 2012: a bookseller recommended it to me when I was working on La Création du Monde at the Ballet de Lorraine and looking for Travels in the Congo in the bookshop. So I bought Congo and it’s become one of those books I keep by my bed. 

You suggested to Éric Vuillard that he should take part in the first part of the creative process with your team so that you could find out what he thought of how you were planning to adapt it. What was that like?

We spent a week together in Paris when we first started working on it in June 2018. He was there observing us, hearing us figuring out his book; he told us what he thought, gave us some historic detail. It was a really fulfilling week of genuine dialogue. We’d met before, but it was the first time we’d spent time together in the same space discussing his bo ok. He was a great listener, saying that he wasn’t the one bringing it to the stage and that from his perspective as a Frenchman and as a European, he found it really interesting to see how people from the Congo with their own history and their own approach took what he had written. We were keen for him to come to the Congo with us for a second residency, most of which was taking place in a forest south of Kisangani. As he writes in one of his chapters: “The Congo doesn’t exist; there’s just the large forest, a river”, I’d have liked to take him to this forest I know so well, on this river he talks about that I travelled a lot on as a child and that I’ve recently rediscovered in a dugout visiting the villages where my mother’s family lives. But Éric had just won the Prix Goncourt and it had completely taken over his diary. I hope we’ll get the opportunity to take that trip later on.

How did this immersion in nature influence your research?

The interest in it was to be in the forest, but it happened that we were also staying on a rubber plantation. With rubber at the heart of this story, spending time on this plantation in the middle of the forest and soaking up the environment gave me the opportunity as a dancer to see what influence this environ-ment had on my body, to see my own reactions to it, but also to listen, to record sounds, to construct physical, sensual and sound material for the piece.

Why did you opt for the form of a trio, with a singer, an actor speaking Vuillard’s words and you as a dancer conveying the emotion?

The three scores are intertwined and complement one another: a dance score for me, an actor’s score for Daddy Kamono Moanda, who is from the Congo but has lived in France for a number of years, and the score for Pasco Losanganya, who is also an actor but happens to be singing in this piece. She’s drawn inspiration here from the songs of the Mongo people because the atrocities of “severed hands” described by Éric Vuillard happened in the northwest of the country in particular, in other words in the current province of Equateur where she was born. In reality there are two historical elements to the severing of hands: during the early years of the occupation of the Congo, the main commodity was wild rubber harvested in the forest. A law or rather a practice gradually became established: if the natives, including exploited children, didn’t collect the quota demanded of them, the colonists could cut off one of their hands. Later, when Léon Fiévez became the colonial commander in this province, he extended this law by declaring that a right hand had to be brought back for each bullet fired to justify the use of ammunition. So the severed hand became a real symbol in that part of Congo. I wanted to ask Pasco, who grew up over there, about the songs she’d heard and to construct a score of songs from that. What was there to sing about in those villages during Lemaire’s time and after Fiévez committed his violent deeds? I felt it was important to also transcribe this dimension in the space because for me one of the most moving pages in Éric’s book was when he gave a face and a name to two or three kids... who’d had their hands chopped off. This was how Pasco created a score of songs for the piece based on her childhood memories.

You’ve also decided to reproduce a large portion of the book on stage...

The actor’s score is actually constructed entirely from the book. Daddy Kamono has almost three quarters of it and it’s really that material, the meaning of the words, but also the music in Éric’s writing that I wanted to make heard. Because it’s a history we’re familiar with, but when it’s told like that it’s exceptional! So it gave the first layer and the others took shape from that: what happens if you superimpose a layer of song on it, songs that come from the forest where these atrocities took place? And what happens when a dancer whose body is informed by that history, starts moving within it? Is it even possible to dance? How can a body even remain standing in the middle of all that?

The atmosphere produced by the sound and lighting is also very evocative. How did they come about?

The sound and lighting had to create a physical space, but also more than anything a mental space. I recorded the forest, the river and the riverbanks and I worked with sound creator Franck Moka to create an installation from this material. It’s about inviting the audience to enter into history by listening, to penetrate that space. There’s also a lot of humour in Éric’s book that contributes to the mood of the piece, and which is all the more interesting for resonating beautifully with the extremely sharp Congolese sense of humour: it’s a way of resisting what’s inevitable, not letting yourself die. So I keep this humour that is intrinsic to the book intact, but ultimately the rest of it is very dark. I accept that the songs are very dark, the way of moving remains dark. A framework had to be created, particularly with lighting designer Koceila Aouabed, between darkness and light by wondering about the possibility of getting light to flash out of the darkness, and asking ourselves whether it is even possible to imagine colour to express that. The project reflects the urgent need currently to create spaces for listening. Dance can create a space for listening. The way I see it, we don’t listen enough, we don’t listen to each other enough ... All the misunderstandings between north and south, the notorious speeches about returning cultural artefacts that were pillaged, stolen from Africa, accurately reflect a complete lack of listening in this shared history. We don’t take time to listen, to really look at what’s in front of us and ask ourselves what we can do to move forward together. A couple of weeks ago I read a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights which says that 2% of children who finish secondary school in Belgium don’t even know that the Congo was a Belgian colony. That’s a sign that it’s time to hear about this history, dispassionately, but to just hear it.

Is this what’s unusual in Vuillard’s account, this bridge between yesterday and today?

Yes, he shows us that the system that made that Congo possible, the exploitation that continues to this day with the capitalist system, started with the slave trade. There’s a link between the slave trade, colonisation and big banks today. The silent partners, the people responsible for all these crimes, continue to enjoy the same privileges. In his book The Order of the Day, which won the Prix Goncourt, it’s made even clearer: it’s the same large industrial and financial groups that supported Hitler financially, that exploited people in concentration camps, that constitute the large omnipotent organi-sations today. History keeps repeating itself and the powerful continue to go unpunished.

Why did you decide to go back and live in the Congo in 2001?

You said that I describe myself as a “story-teller” and that’s true. But the stories I tell are always true stories. It’s like there’s an obsession in my work with the Congo and its history, and that’s why I decided to return to the Congo to live and work there. The stories I want to tell aren’t stories about exile and I don’t feel the need to invent fiction when reality is just as powerful. In the way I tell the story, I’m a bit like a fisherman who goes out with loads of nets of different mesh sizes so that nothing slips through because the story I’m trying to tell, the physical and mental territory I’m trying to bring to the stage, is so fluid and so unsettled that I feel the need to use all the means in my power to try and get as close as possible to what is most true about this story. Sometimes that happens through dance, music, and other times through words. This time it’s Éric Vuillard’s words that made me want to examine this part of the story further. Ultimately this process is not so very different from traditional stories in a number of societies that seize on a story and sometimes become characters in it, or let go of the story to talk about it from the outside. Storywriters in Africa are dancers, musicians and singers as well, and the stories come about uniquely through song or dance when things can no longer be expressed with words and you just have to let the body move. That’s what explains the different forms adopted by my propositions on stage – it all depends on what I want to convey.

Interview by Mélanie Drouère for Festival d’Automne à Paris, March 2019

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Dancer and choreographer Faustin Linyekula lives and works in Kisangani in the DR Congo. After studying literature and drama in Kisangani, he moved to Nairobi in 1993 and in 1997 with Opiyo Okach and Afrah Tenambergen set up the Gàara company, Kenya's first contemporary dance company. Their first creation, Cleansing, won a prize at the African Choreographic Encounters held in Luanda in 1998. In 2001 he felt a need to return to Zaire which by then had become the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country torn apart by several years of bloody conflict, and a trip for a workshop scheduled to last a few weeks became a life choice. Faustin set up the Studios Kabako, an organisation for dance and visual theatre, "a place where people work, where you are always looking and sometimes you find, a place where you doubt but where some evenings certainty imposes itself". Faustin Linyekula has created ten pieces with his company. In 2009, he created more more more... future, a rock-opera-ndombolo which has toured Europe as well as North America and Africa. In 2009 he gave a rare and wonderful performance himself in the duet Sans-titre with Raimund Hoghe. That year, he also proposed a production of Jean Racine's Bérénice for the Comédie Française and Pour en finir avec Bérénice was performed with six Congolese actors at the Festival d'Avignon in July 2010 and at the Théâtre National de Chaillot and the KVS theatre in Brussels in 2011. In 2007 he won the principal award of the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. In 2014, Linyekula and the Studios Kabako were awarded the first Prize of the American CurryStone Foundation for the work developed in Kisangani. Alongside fostering younger Congolese artists in the field of performing art, music and video, the Studios Kabako are also working with communities of the Lubunga district on the South Bank of the Congo river, namely around drinking water issues. From 2018 to 2021, Faustin Linyekula will be associate artist to the Manège in Reims. In 2019, he will be associate artist alongside William Kentridge to the Holland Festival.

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