Cause for humanity brings the world to Ubumuntu Arts Festival

Tjarda Van Straten and Hilde Cannoodt are dance choreographers and teachers from the Netherlands and Belgium respectively. The two jetted into the country on Tuesday, as part of the foreign cast for the second edition of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, a brainchild of the Mashirika Performing Arts and Media Company.

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Stage of last year’s Ubumuntu festival

This year’s edition will be staged at the same venue as last years’ –the amphitheater of the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi; but it will be bigger and better, with four days of performances as opposed to two last year. This year’s festival will run from July 14-17.

Tjarda and Hilde are here to create a dance workshop in collaboration with Rwandan artistes, both established and the up-and-coming, which they will present at the festival.

As choreographers and dance teachers, Hilde and Tjarda have known each other for about ten years.

“We met at a fusion dance festival in the UK. Both of us specialise in fusion dance. Fusion dance is a very broad term of course and our styles are very different but we both studied contemporary dance for a long time and specialised in Laban Movement Analysis or LMA,” explains Hilde, who lives in London, UK.

“LMA is a discipline in dance which allows you to look at movement from different aspects, such as spatially or dynamically. Tjarda and I come from different schools so even though we have both trained in LMA we have different approaches, hence we complement each other well both as teachers as well as choreographers.”

Hilde first met Hope Azeda, the festival organizer back in 2013.

“We are both interested in arts, Hope has a strong theatre background and I have my background in dance, but we clicked very well and I even got to work a little bit with the dancers in her Mashirika theatre company. It was a very rich experience for me and we both stayed in touch. When she held the first Ubumuntu festival last year I got in touch with her again about an idea I had to collaborate with my colleague Tjarda on a dance project, working with the Rwandan dancers I met back in 2013. She was enthusiastic for us to create some work for the 2016 festival.

With our work in Rwanda, we want not only to create a performance, but share our knowledge in LMA with the Rwandan dancers, so they can potentially use it for future works for themselves. The theories are very interesting and can be applied to dance, but also to theatre.”

Doing it for humanity:

To raise enough money for the trip, the two had to fund raise from friends, fans and well-wishers, explains Hilde:

“Tjarda and I have been working on the dance sector for a long time. Because of our line of work -fusion dance, we have both worked all over the world as performers, as teachers, as choreographers. Our work is about finding the connections between the different styles of dance, to create something new, a fusion of two dances. Through social media we have a lot of connections and we wanted to engage our online community with the work we were planning to do in Rwanda. We both knew that many of our community would support such work, which involves sharing art between different cultures. So we reached out with our kickstarter with the title Movement for Humanity, and many of our community supported us, which made it possible for this project to take place.”

They will need this money to pay a decent wage to the artistes they will be working with, as well cover other expenses like venue hire, costume, accommodation and travel.

While Hilde is only returning to Rwanda, having visited a handful of times before, his dance partner Tjarda is here for her very first time.

“From the few days I have spent here, I can say that I feel very welcome. People are so friendly, warm, interested and willing to help. The streets are so clean and I love the ‘no plastic bags allowed’ rule. I am eager to start our dance project!,” explained Tjarda.

For Hilde, the story is quite different:

“Since my family lives here, I’ve spent the last few days catching up with them. But apart from our project that is about to start on the 27th June and will run for three weeks, we are planning to find out about local community projects. For example, on Friday we taught a dance workshop at a school in Simbi. We got to meet the children, we got to dance with them and they performed some traditional Rwandan dance for us. For us this is also an important part of this trip. To understand how dance is part of the bigger community in Rwanda,” she explained.

Hilde first came to Rwanda in 2006, when her father married his Rwandan wife.

“I right away fell in love with the country, and especially with the traditional Rwandan dance. I came back to Rwanda in 2013, and this is my 3rd time now. What especially stands out for me is the sense of community: everyone helping each other to make things possible. For me this is a very unique experience. I also notice that even when you have a ‘radical’ idea such as creating a dance project in Rwanda, people accept it and will help you in any way to make these ideas possible. In some countries, for example, in England this support is not there. I like to surround myself by people that think like me: let’s make things possible and let’s create beautiful arts.”

Hope Azeda, the festival curator believes that such artistic international collaborations is the stuff that festivals are made of, and indeed offers an insight into how these linkages are formed:

“I have found that this whole thing is a journey of courage and wisdom. When we start initial communication through e-mail about the festival I’m always very open. I put it out there that there’s this dream, this platform to learn and share and grow. I tell them that this is a baby festival without any funding but we’re trying to look for funding. I think the word humanity is everyone’s fuel in this call to be part of this festival. Everybody is like how can I give back to the community, how can I make a check-in of myself and grow? So this checking in also brings big hearts on board.”

Azeda believes that people like Hilde and Tjarda “just have their hearts into the arts”.

“They want to help the community, they want to help other women grow, they want to empower young people and to share skills, but most importantly also grow themselves. So it’s such a huge sacrifice being part of this festival which I love a lot because we as organizers are also sacrificing because we are sponsoring ourselves. For instance I’m putting in everything that I have as a curator but I’m not charging anybody for that. My skills of networking, of marketing are free for this festival, hoping that at the end of the day it will be a platform for all of us to check in and grow.

Artistes coming to the festival really know there is no money in this, and I always make that clear, but what the festival gives back is priceless; the experience they get and the experience we get ourselves, even the experience of just knowing each other.”

Hilde argues that not just Rwandans, but humanity as a whole needs such forums of artistic expression as Ubumuntu:

“From what I understand, Ubumuntu really is the first of its kind that is taking place in Rwanda. Why it is so important is to offer a platform to artists to share their work. Some are emerging artists, some are established artists. This way many people can learn from the experience: the artists, the performers, the organizers and the audiences will all be enriched from this experience.

But more globally, I think Ubumuntu sends a strong message: when we work together we can actualize incredible things. I think there is sometimes too much focus on competition in the West: every man for himself. This is what closes people off from each other as they feel they need to protect themselves and their work. But actually when we share we all benefit hugely from the experience, something that just isn’t possible when you close off possibilities and work for yourself. In today’s world, where fear mongering for anything different is stronger than I’ve ever seen it, it is an important message to send out to the world: things do not have to be like this, things can be different!”

Of the eighteen production companies jetting in for the festival, a few applied for grants from the relevant organizations and got them, while others, like Hilde and Tjarda launched successful online fund-raising campaigns.