Interview with Performance Artist Dorothée Munyaneza

December 31, 2015 | By Nicole Birmann

Dorothée Munyaneza's Samedi détente -- an exploration of the will to survive and to find happiness amidst unimaginable horrors through spoken word, song and movement -- will premiere at The Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival (January 14-17). It will then be presented Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California (January 21 to 23).


Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): You are a multi-performance artist - dancer, singer, actor, choreographer -  and Samedi détente is your first performance piece. Could you tell us about the title Samedi détente and its context?

Dorothée Munyaneza (D.M.): When I first started writing what I could remember from my childhood and more so about the somber period of April to July 1994, during which Rwanda sunk in bloodshed while the rest of the world prevaricated, I wrote a lot about friends and family members that were no more. And in remembering them, I thought about the time when they were still alive, the things that we used to do during my childhood and the moments we used to share. I had a happy, carefree childhood, full of light, love, music, dance, laughter, learning, and I loved spending time listening to the radio with my friends and when I decided to make a performance piece out of what I had written, I felt compelled to remember them through the lens of those carefree moments, I chose to speak about their deaths, our survival, through something that, in my memory, displayed joviality, and Samedi Détente which was a music radio programme we used to listen to, for me symbolises a part of those moments before everything turned upside down. I did not want to name my first autobiographical performance piece by a name that suggested the Rwandan genocide, but rather something that reminded me about life, something that reminded me about the good times in order to tackle the dark times. The opposition between the title that reveals a state of joie de vivre and the content of my experience during those three months, was important to me.

N.B.B.: Are you still in contact with people in Rwanda? Have you ever gone back? Could Samedi détente be presented there?

D.M.: I first went back to Rwanda in 1998. We had moved to London in August 1994 where my mother was working as a programme director in an NGO, since late 1993. After that we returned there every couple of years. I even went there in 2009 after I got married with my French husband accompanied by a number of our friends, the last time I was there was two years ago to present our son. I have an attachment to Rwanda that is visceral, it is the land that feeds my soul, the land of my ancestors and family members whose lives have influenced and are still influencing me as a human being. And having lived in London for 14 years and now in France for the last 7 years, I feel as a tree whose roots are deeply planted in motherland and whose branches are growing across continents. It's an enriching experience. Of course I would love to present my work in Rwanda, I know that art is a such a strong medium of expression through which we can converse and touch even the turbulent parts that are in us. We are working on bringing Samedi Détente to Rwanda, it would be such an honor!

N.B.B.: You worked with choreographers such as François Verret and Alain Buffard - notably in his latest work, Baron Samedi, presented in New York and Seattle in 2014.  Could you tell us about these collaborations?

D.M.: When I first met François Verret in 2006 in a café in Paris, I didn't know who he was, and little did I know about the french contemporary dance scene. I was still living in London at the time. He is really the person through whom I discovered the contemporary dance world, as he invited me to collaborate with him as a singer/storyteller in his work Sans Retour, after which we worked together on three other pieces that followed. Through him I met incredibly talented people, and with him I learnt the importance of diving deeply into writings of different great authors to the point of memorizing them and trusting the memory left by their words and from that point on, creating with that memory and one's personal memories. Working with François Verret also encouraged me to keep trusting my voice and sharpened my sense of improvisation, he called each artist to improvise all the time and in so doing, find an artistic writing that could be reproduced at the end of the creative period. In working with him, I felt even closer to the idea of art being a reflection of our society, a medium through which we not only seek to create beauty or touch the ugly, but also be fully engaged. Being an engaged artist, matured even more by the side of Alain Buffard (without forgetting the other artists such Robyn Orlin, Rachid Ouramdane, Ko Murobushi...with whom I learnt more and more), but truth be said, Alain Buffard, opened up the pandora box for me. When we first started to work together on Baron Samedi, he invited each artist who was present, to share a personal story, fictive or real. I spoke and sung about Rwanda, from the colonial period up to the 6th of April 1994. Alain Buffard spoke to the heart and the artist spoke with that heart, he taught me to seek inspiration from within and without, in photographs, in pieces of art, in film, in music. Together, we spoke a lot about our experiences, and while we worked afterwards, I realized that I had truly embraced expressing myself through the body, through dance. He laughed and cried a lot too and that was like balm to my invisible wounds. With Alain Buffard, I grasped that I could tell my story in an artistic way for in his company I felt that I too, one day, will make my own work.

N.B.B.: Can you also tell us about your work as a singer?

D.M.: Before becoming a dancer, I was and still am a singer. My first instrument is my voice. When I finished my university studies, I worked as a singer mainly, collaborating with London based musicians/composers such as AfroCelt Sound System or James Brett. I was also involved in the composition of the original soundtrack of Hotel Rwanda. Later while working with François Verret, I met Alain Mahé with whom I am still collaborating a great deal, he is a wonderful and phenomenal musician and with whom I am growing more and more, every time. Together with him and brilliant guitar player Jean-François Pauvros, we have a trio called Kingfishers and we set to music the great poetry of Charles Olson. I am also part of another trio with Seb Martel another talented guitarist and the great David Taieb aka Catman, we are called Struggle Trio, and we revisit the music and writings of Woody Guthrie.

N.B.B.: It is not your first time in the U.S., but it is the first time you are showing your own work here. Could you tell us about your expectations of the U.S., in the context of this work and also generally? Are there any artists here you would particularly like to work with? And finally, what are your upcoming projects?   

D.M.: When I first started working on this piece, never did I imagine that it would reach beyond the borders of France and Belgium, countries whose histories are linked with that of my own. However the more we performed it, the more I begun to fathom that it can be shared with people even in countries that know nothing about what happened in Rwanda, because art ought to transcend physical, intellectual, historical borders. I begun to understand that more and more people were not only learning about what happened in Rwanda but also received the artistic work my collaborators Alain Mahé, the magnificent Nadia Beugré  and I, were giving to them and somehow they would take that with them and that for me was also of great importance. I do not wish to be an history teacher, but an artist with a story to tell, so that less people can say, 'I didn't know'... I am hoping that this work will receive a good reception, that will touch people's hearts and mind. I keep fond memories of our coming last year with Baron Samedi, may Samedi Détente be as unforgettable.

While I was working with Alain Buffard, I met two american artists who are as talented as they are kind. Their names are David Thomson and Will Rawls. They opened my eyes to what it is like being an artist over in the U.S. and their drive and dance are most inspiring. I hope to one day meet with either or both of them to create something special. 

I was recently invited to do a performance at Centre Pompidou in Paris during their one night festival Courts Circuits, and the power of an ephemeral artistic moment surrounded by works of Basquiat, Marlene Dumas or Samuel Fosso was undeniable. I would like to renew that kind of experience in other places.  Moreover, I am always quite concerned about what happens in the world around us in order to find a way to speak about it through artistic means, whether it be the situation of migrants, here in Europe or rape being used as a weapon of war. Finally, I am still open to collaborating with other artists who wish to call upon my artistic abilities for their work. There is so much to share, so much work to create, if we remain connected to our times.

MERCI.

Interview by Nicole Birmann Bloom - December 2015

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