By Camille LeFevre
Photo Credit: Sara Rubinstein
He begins with the bent-knee, straight-back stance practiced by his tribe, the Baule people of Africa’s Ivory Coast. Then, Michel Kouakou ripples his torso, “to bring in movement that’s graceful,” he explains. Next come shoulder shimmies, which he learned while in Senegal; the flexible legs and open hips of Cameroon; then the rotating pelvis he picked up in the Benin Republic. In an instant, this aggregation of West African dance styles finds fluid and dynamic expression in Kouakou’s compact body, kinetically reaching out across time, space, and tradition like ocean waves washing eternally between continents.
These movements are the foundation from which Kouakou, assistant professor of dance in the University of Minnesota’s Theatre Arts and Dance department, choreographs and teaches. “I’m captivated by the spiritual, ritualistic, and meditational aspects of traditional African dance,” he says. “That’s where it all began.”
But as a youngster, he was also captivated by the moves of Prince, MC Hammer, and Michael Jackson. “Every young African man, while growing up, has a window in their sights to the Western world,” he explains. “The craft and ease of their dancing, combined with their talent and hard work, created something that felt—to me—like something out of this world.”
So Kouakou began mixing traditional African dance with that of the pop icons. But he wanted more. He left Africa in 1999 to lead a nomadic existence in search of art and inspiration around the globe. He emigrated to Europe where he studied and performed modern and post-modern dance works. He discovered the still, purposeful slowness of Butoh in Japan. He performed with Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group in Brooklyn, where he absorbed Wilson’s “grounded, weighty movement,” he says.
By the early naughts, Kouakou had integrated it all into a style he calls AFASAM (derived from the first two letters of Africa, Asia, and America). “Combining it all together was a challenge,” he explains. During his travels, “I had allowed myself to be lost.” While learning new styles, “I allowed myself to copy others.” Then, he says, “I decided not to take class for five years. Finally, things started making sense in my body.”
Today, he encourages his students to “be open enough to build a creativity that’s their own. Because, in this life, each individual has an important role in effecting change. To effect change, you have to bring something uniquely you.” He tells them “to be humble with movement first,” which means “finding the right weight, the right balance of movement in the body. It’s not about forcing the movement to do what you want, but letting it tell you when it should start, be, and end.”
For Kouakou, finding oneself in movement “is like language,” he says. “You have to start with a language of your own, which for me was traditional African dance, in order to translate and integrate a world of dance” into a way of moving that’s unique. Then, as he tells his students, “dance like no one can see you.”
(Main Photo By: Sara Rubinstein)