Guinea's world-famous dance troupe fades into uncertain future
For years, Guinea's main dance company brought glory to the west African state, touring the globe for sell-out performances. Today, ageing and forgotten, it struggles to train a new generation of dancers facing a very uncertain future.
"Les Ballets Africains was the biggest cultural institution not just in Guinea but, as their name suggests, in the whole of Africa," said national culture director Jean Baptiste Williams.
"They made Guinea proud on stages around the world."
Yet now, the stars once lauded on Broadway have no dedicated performance space, no financing and have not worked outside of the country in years.
It all started in the early 1950s in Paris, capital of Guinea's then colonial power, when three friends joined forces in the heady days of growing African independence movements.
Guineans Fodeba Keita, a poet and dancer, and Facelli Kante, a guitarist, and Cameroonian singer Albert Mouangue, wanted to promote African identity and traditions, telling stories through dance, song, percussion and gymnastic displays.
In 1958, a proud yet impoverished Guinea, newly independent from France, began investing heavily in culture under its charismatic first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, a socialist and ardent promoter of the arts.
Back home, Les Ballets Africains members were made state employees with the government catering to their every need. They, in turn, became Conakry's cultural ambassadors and the fresh face of decolonised Africa.
"Until the death of Sekou Toure (in 1984), we were like the pampered children of the revolution," artistic director Hamidou Bangoura, 74, told AFP.
- Global popularity -
An acrobat by training, Bangoura has spent 56 years with the troupe, joining in 1960 as Les Ballets Africains began its meteoric rise.
"We did the five continents," he said, electrifying spectators in the grandest theatres of Paris, Moscow, New York and elsewhere.
And when they performed in Guinea, "absolutely everyone came" to revel in the music of the ancient balafon, a type of wooden xylophone, the haunting kora, a 21-string lute native to West Africa, the high-octane dancing and the dazzling array of outfits steeped in folklore.
But the United States was "our biggest market", Bangoura reminisced. "Every year we went for two or three months," during international tours that could last a year or more.
They not only raked in money but rubbed shoulders with black American superstars like Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier, boxing champion Muhammad Ali and "Godfather of Soul" James Brown.
They also met South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, the trailblazer in popularising African music worldwide who lived many years in exile in the US.
The troupe's success generated income for the new republic back home. "We put clothes on the back of our soldiers, bought instruments for our musicians," Mariama Toure, a Les Ballets Africains dancer since 1976, recalled with pride.
Even the Guinea national football squad got new kits thanks to their shows.
Things began to change with Toure's death. They no longer, as before, had "all the doors open to us", said Sekou 2 Conde, a member of Les Ballets Africains since 1967.
Lansana Conte, Guinea's second president, began a process that would see the troupe stripped of their envied status as civil servants.
After taking power in a military coup, Conte won friends in the west by dropping his predecessor’s leftwing policies in favour of IMF-backed spending cuts.
Ballets and orchestras became difficult to maintain as the government promoted privatisation, with attention shifting to individual artists and the scene moving to Paris where Guinea’s most famous performer Mory Kante was based.
- Uncertain future -
There are now 45 members of Les Ballets Africains, many of them pensioners.
They rehearse in the capital's Palais du Peuple (People's Palace). Since parliament is also based here, they find themselves sharing their performance space with political meetings and other public events.
The old guard rely heavily on the goodwill of others -- technicians, voluntary dancers and the public -- just to keep going.
The long tours of old were gradually cut down and the last time they left Guinea to perform abroad was in 2010, to China.
"We have no support," lamented Toure. "It makes me sad."
Regardless, the veterans of 30, 40, and 50 years in the troupe refuse to give up, training unpaid young newcomers from Monday to Thursday, come rain or shine.
Culture Minister Fodeba Isto Keira told AFP there is a plan to relaunch artistic ensembles like Les Ballets Africains, "but to do that we have to modernise the workforce".
Troupe member Bangoura fears all may not move ahead quickly enough, given the high level of dedication required of the company's recruits.
"We will keep training the young ones," he said, but worries they will give up if they see no future in their art.
"This is my biggest fear today."