On a rainy Saturday May morning in a cafe in the centre of Helsinki, I had an interview with Sibiry Konate.
Emonie Ayiwe: Hello, could present yourself, what do you do?
Sibiry Konate: First of all, hello. I am Sibiry Konate, and I come from Burkina Faso, West Africa. A small country that borders countries like Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Niger and others.
I am an artist, dancer, choreographer and a dance teacher as well. I dance traditional African dance, and contemporary, or Afro-contemporary dance, mixing the two. I am African and live in Europe, so one has to hold on to the riches of both places.
E: How did you start dancing?
S: Yes, since I was small, five years old, I danced a lot. I was someone who was always in nature, with animals and roaming free. I surrounded by the sound of nature, the sound of birds, which inspired me a lot.
E: Do you have an education in dance or you are more self-taught?
S: In Burkina Faso, dance education is on the streets, you learn everything from the streets. So, I started traditional African Burkinabé dance from the streets with my friends. Later, I became interested in contemporary dance at the French Institute. There they had European and American dancers who taught free classes. Then I left my hometown Bobo for Ouagadougou to learn more about contemporary dance. In Ouagadougou, at the big centre for choreography called CDC La Térmitière, I completed my education to become a choreographer.
E: And now, in Finland what do you do in terms of dance?
S: Before coming to Finland, I was in Paris at the Centre National de la danse [national centre of dance]. And here in Finland, I do freelance, I have my dance company. I also do many dance classes and work on several dance projects.
E: Can you tell me why you dance?
S: For me, dance is a way to communicate with the whole world without having a common language. The body talks, so I think us dancers try to communicate with our bodies as well. In contemporary dance, we try to express everything we see, feel and want to say with the body. And in classes, it is shared with the students, it is a joy that we share.
E: Where do you find inspiration for your dance?
S: It is a good question. For me, I would say a choreographer has to be aware of everything that happens in their daily life around them. Like the situation with Ukraine and Russia, choreographers think of ways they can depict what they see and understand. Everything that happens can inspire, even when I am asleep, something can pop up in my mind. Everything inspires.
E: Is it important for you to always try and develop your dance?
S: Yes, for me it is important. When you always do the same thing, you become monotone, it is not interesting anymore. That is why I like contemporary dance as it is a dance where there is no limit. You always have to find new things. Even for a performance you might do it a hundred times, it is the same performance but you still do it differently. It means that you need to be on a path of breaking and building, breaking and building again. And the world also changes and goes on, but there is no need to go fast either, one should take time to develop.
E: And you also dance in vanhainkoti; rest homes. Could you talk more about this?
S: It is a project. When there was the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, I saw…well in Africa and Finland, the experiences of the elderly are a bit different. In Africa, the elderly are viewed as ‘libraries’, sources of information. They are an important part of society there. In Burkina Faso, when I was younger, our grandparents told us stories of the past. But here, it is a bit different. When you are old, you are put in a box and yeah, it is a bit sad.
Hence, I try to approach the elderly, learn and share dance with them. In the Summer of 2020, I danced in front of them to give them joy. I just went to different rest homes and performed in the garden and the elderly were inside looking at me.
But this year, I will do a documentary film with Finnish and African elders. The project is called Mamamousso, which means grandmother. In the documentary we want to dance together in service centres. It is like two worlds communicating with dance. I was in Burkina Faso with directors Jussi Rastas and Jenni Kivistö. We also interview elderly people, who tell stories of their past and their current lives in Finland and Burkina Faso. Soon we will finish the project!
E: You had mentioned that you danced in Burkina Faso, France and Finland, do you think you express yourself differently when you dance in these different countries?
S: Mmm, I do not think so. There is no difference, but sure the weather is different, Burkina is always hot. In France people move fast, the pace of life is fast and Finland it is slower. You need to understand that each country is different.
For us Africans who come from West Africa, it is quite difficult with French because in Finland there is no common language to communicate with the artists. There is a barrier. Those who come from Burkina, Mali and do not speak English, you go through a lot of battles to keep your art. You might become a cleaner or do other things because you have no choice as you need to survive. It can be difficult for people from Francophone countries to integrate in Finland but nothing is easy. You have to fight hard.
E: How do you find the contemporary dance community in Finland?
S: The level is high, but what is unfortunate is that Finnish dancers often stay put in Finland. You can see French dancers everywhere. In Burkina, we know more French, Chinese or American dancers than Finnish ones. But in Finland, you do not see many people doing exchange with other artists. But Finnish artists are very professional and well engaged. I have worked with Alpo Aaltokoski and Susanna Leinonen who danced in my festival. Alpo Aaltokoski also went to Burkina Faso where he met local dancers. I want Finnish dancers to not only stay here in Finland, but go elsewhere as well. Because in contemporary dance, each dancer has their own technique, thus when they dance with someone different, they learn new things from them.
E: Why do you think they (Finnish) do not do much of this exchange?
S: Maybe they do more with English speaking countries, but with French speaking countries there is the language barrier. In Burkina we do not know Finnish dancers. But I am not sure.
E: Then is it important for you to have a dance community?
S: Yes, it is. Last year I did a performance Unelma – Rêve. We need to dream because otherwise you go to work, clean your house, and go to work again and die.
For the performance I worked with different artists from Finland, Sweden and Denmark. We performed in Stoa. The artists were African, Guinean, Burkinabé and Senegalese. Africa is huge, and each country has its own culture and its own dance. I tried to get everyone together and the performance was really great. And I do want to work with Finnish artist as well, not only African. For me, it is really important to go elsewhere and work with many different individuals.
E: Do you believe that you have the support to do what you want?
S: I come from a poor family, so when I do a performance, I first think of whether I am able to do the performance if I do not have the financial means. But I do not think too much about money but more about whether I can do it without the finances. If you think too much of money, then you risk losing your aspiration. Of course, money is important to pay for the dance space and other expenses.
But I have had a lot of chance in Finland. All the performances that I have done, I have got funding. Now I also have funding for projects I have not started yet. So, I am lucky because I have many friends that have not had the same chance. I wish that all Africans could get funding to support their craft. I am thankful for Finland and the organisations that have had faith in me as a foreigner.
E: Do you have other projects you will work on this year or the following year that you could talk about?
S: Yes. I have a festival “Bouger bouger” (move move) that I created already in 2020 but because of Covid-19, we could not do it, so we will perform it this year in August. For me, it came from looking at the treatment of Africans in Libya, the situation in Ukraine, and other countries. I am African, when I see Libya, I see my sisters and brothers. I wanted to make a festival as a memoir for them called “Bouger bouger”. Everyone has the right to move. It will be performed at the Liikkuu Liikkuu dance festival (happened on the 21st of August 2022), which I also created in 2020. We will first start in Helsinki and then go to Turku and Tampere. It is a festival of the streets as I come from the streets. Further, it supports young and less known dancers in Finland as they are able to showcase their craft. The idea is to also bring the festival to Burkina Faso where Finnish artists go there and African artists come perform here.
I also started a documentary about me, about who I am. The documentary looks at dance and politics, Africa, freedom, and independence, whether Africa really has independence… Because I am Francophone African and we are always controlled by greater powers than us. So, it is about that. We started this in 2015, and hope to finish it next year.
E: You have many things going on.
S: Yes, a lot. I also do classes at Tanssille RY (Spring 2022) and TAIKE.
I am also thinking of a space for foreign artists, Dambe. When you first arrive from somewhere, you might be lost, so there is a need for a platform or space such as a kulttuurikeskus, cultural centre that can support foreigners, Africans, artists, and dancers to sustain themselves with dance. As often, at the beginning it is not easy. I know, because at the beginning it was very difficult for me so I want that children and others to know that there is a space like that. But it is not only me working on this. I want to create it with other active artists here which makes it easier to build.
In dance there’s everything: sports, culture, education which make it something to support.
Emonie Ayiwe is a Finnish-Nigerian Luxembourger who recently completed her studies in Intercultural Encounters. She currently works as a research assistant at Democratic Society, working on projects on participatory processes and citizen engagement. She has a keen interest in hip hop studies, especially breaking, as she has always been interested in dancing. She got into the groove of streetdance and dancehall at university. Later on in her studies, she joined a breaking class and became interested in the communal aspect of the dance. This motivated her to do her bachelor’s thesis on breaking which explored what breaking means to the dancers. She also started to watch dance battles and saw that there were many Korean b-boys and b-girls performing in them. This piqued her interest, and she wrote her master’s thesis on the expressions of identity in South Korean b-boys. She hopes to further study breaking in other contexts and explore how it can be beneficial to the whole community, not just the dancers.
Photo Paola Fernanda. From left: Absa Mbaye, Sibiry Konate, David Dioubaté.