Faustin Linyekula at FringeArts Philadelphia

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Yesterday, Faustin Linyekula listened to Outkast and Marian Anderson. Today, he hasn’t listened to any music yet. He prefers Tidal over Spotify because the sound quality is better. He is an audio engineer at Studios Kaboko, the arts/dance/music/theater center he founded in 2001 in Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is reading the French translation of James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man as well as interviews with Werner Herzog. I’m asking him these magazine column questions because I want to know if how he talks about art as life/life is art is how he talks about everything. Yes. The answer is yes.

Linyekula’s solo show Le Cargo has been touring and morphing for years. It is at FringeArts this Saturday, September 24, at 2 pm.

Over a faulty Skype connection, Linyekula unfolds convictions in complete paragraphs.

“What I can say is that, first of all, this is the only time I ever make a solo. I never made a solo before this. I never make a solo for myself after… Simply because I believe the whole part of creating is NOT TO BE ALONE. But after 10 years of company work, I needed to stop and refresh what had been going on and what could possibly be my next steps. That’s how this piece came about. I tell this story during the piece.”

Listening to Linyekula feels like I’ve stepped into a rushing river. It’s exciting and cold and moving with a strong current. I can see how the water rushing by is also working slowly, patiently, to change the larger structures.

“It was 2011 when I made Le Cargo, the 10th anniversary of Studio Kabako… After 10 years, nothing was changing. I was stuck with the same stories over and over again. How do I find a new story or could it be that I need to stop telling stories and explore what could be pure dance? Where could I find it?”

I haven’t seen Le Cargo yet. Linyekula will be in Philly for what seems like less than 24 hours. No in-person interview. No open dress. You can watch what I’ve watched on the internet if you google Le Cargo and his name.

I suck at Skype. It feels like doggie paddling. He is a Skype professional.

Linyekula tells me a quick summary of a the story of Le Cargo, of searching for something in dance, something as an escape from storytelling, and this search narrowing to a search for the dances from his earliest memories, from his hometown.

“I took a trip to a village where I lived until I was 8 years old, 1982. I went there because it’s where I oddly locate my oldest memories of dance. You just can’t run away from yourself. Most of these dancers from my childhood had actually disappeared because of war and people just leaving to deal with their lives differently. Some of those traditions are disappearing. So somehow the piece [Le Cargo] ends up being the story of a disappearing world.”

I need clarification. I ask him what led him to dance. He tells me again, in different words, that he came to dance as a way out of stories, ending up with more stories.

“I don’t have formal training as a dancer. I was 21 when I first attended a dance workshop. I’ve been in theater all along… What led me to dance? Literature and theater. What could be a possibility of escaping storytelling? Maybe it was romantic idea of dance, something outside of these contingencies of history and geography and poverty.”

I ask about his experience of contemporary dance in his area.

“I was living in Kenya for 3 years. There wasn’t much going on until ’93, ’95. There was aggressive move from the French on the continent towards organizing workshops called ‘Towards a Contemporary African Dance.’ For four or five years, I didn’t call myself a dancer. I’m an actor but I work with my body. After a few years, I think I put myself through enough training to qualify as a dancer. I didn’t have that complex anymore. It was gradual… After five years, I have gone through this long enough. I taught myself dance enough to qualify. To say ‘Hey, now I’m a dancer’.”

In my head, I’m like: UGHHHHH, BUT HOW, HOW did you ACCEPT YOURSELF as a dancer? The complex! I know! WHAT does that MEAN!? But instead, I ask about his choice to stay in the Congo:

“In order to be true to what was important to me, I had to come back home. And also, once I got here, it became a challenge against society. When you’re out of the country, the stories you hear from this country are so desperate, you think no life is possible from here. And when you come back, everyone puts you under pressure, ‘Why did you come back here?’ ‘Wherever you were, you were more useful for the family.’ For me, it’s a way of resisting that, a way of telling myself that life is still possible in Congo. It’s still possible to change something from here, even if it’s a really small thing. I can say that every day with my work here, it makes a difference. Even if it’s just 5 or 10 people that can work in Kaboko. Somehow it kind of pushes me forward, knowing what I’m doing here makes a difference to other peoples’ live as well. Someone has to start something, or there’s no hope for this country. Staying here and doing my work from here is also a way of saying that maybe everything has collapsed, maybe even the earth itself has collapsed, but the people are still there, we are still here. And we are working, to give some dignity, to keep dreaming, and we are working, even if a small way, our country, we are NOT WAITING FOR anyone to come and save us. Staying here is part of that political position.”

(YAS Faustin, me too!!!) I ask something about how he feels about work he’s seen. I want to know what he likes.

“I want to see what people are struggling with. What they believe in. It could be an aesthetic quest. There are moments when you can feel that an aesthetic quest is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s actually something deeper. Someone can engage something about who they are, about their view of the world. When I see intellectual exercises, I’m not interested in that. Most of the time I see work and the question I ask is, ‘What have you got to lose?’ When there is something deeper at play, you feel it. You don’t even need to name it, you feel it.”

Me: So, what do you have to lose?

“The only thing I’m playing with is my own life. It is not about clarifying my position in the little part of the world that I inhabit. What have I got to lose? We live in a world where we wear so many masks to go through daily life; it’s a survival technique, to put on masks. I hope the space my work occupies is space without any masks. There is something, you are so fragile when you drop all the masks, the world can just crush you.”

I’m discovering in Linyekula a case for dancers as choreographers/artists to invest in fertilizing smaller ecosystems of dance. I think, a little colonially: I’ve been close to the struggle to grow contemporary dance scenes in America’s not-New York cities: Sarasota, Baltimore, Seattle. The struggle is real. But in the DRC? So I have to ask, how do you fund everything?

“Mostly through touring. Our money comes from touring and co-production [theaters and festivals that are co-producers]. It puts a lot of pressure on me. I have to make work and hope that the work will tour. We are trying to figure out how to make money locally to generate money for the project… We have been fortunate to keep the whole project going, and 90% on our own money. In Studios Kabako, we produce other artists. When I don’t perform myself personally, Studios Kaboko is now presenting in the city two pieces by two of my collaborators.”

Linyekula explains that he still performs Le Cargo because the questions he asks himself about his relationship to his country are still changing. In the same thought, he explains his next project: an initiative to provide clean water in the neighborhood where his mother grew up.

“The most important project we are working on locally right now is a project we hope to inaugurate next year. It’s a project we are creating in the most underprivileged neighborhood in the city,  Lubunga. My mother is from that neighborhood. It is of 200,000 people and there is no running water. I have been thinking about having an art center there, because I believe in places where daily life is so rough, that’s where we need art. We need spaces where can re-imagine our own being. As we started this project we realized that this is a neighborhood of no running water and so they drink water that is not clean. So we say, okay, Studios Kabuko will be also where we can start producing clean water for 8,000. It will be a first step; a way of saying that being an artist is another way of negotiating a place as a citizen. I am privileged enough to travel the world and meet people who have devised solutions for producing clean water. We are investing in beginning to produce clean water. This is my next big piece. It is a piece that will not tour. But it is very very important.”

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