The beat of a different drummer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 1997, 12:00am

Don't waste that energy, insisted Koffi Koko, imitating someone - probably me - waving their arms in an uncoordinated way. 'If you lose the energy then you lose everything.' The Paris-based dancer from Benin, West Africa, was giving the first session of a three-morning workshop in a Cultural Centre rehearsal room.

For this beginner at least, the two-hour session was a sobering reminder of how a sedentary, and evidently mismanaged, lifestyle leads to an inability to relax. The bi-weekly jog around Discovery Bay simply does not help when you are asked to liberate your sternum.

Realising that the 'masterclass', with some exceptions, consisted of students with more enthusiasm than experience, Koffi started us off slowly. Curling down, 'vertebra by vertebra' to touch our toes, curling back, click by click to force our heads right back.

Three musicians - from Benin, Brazil and Ghana, all playing Benin instruments - obligingly slowed their drum rhythms right down to heart-in-ice speed.

'You have to learn to go slowly, because then you can go fast later. But if you just learn to go fast, then you will only ever be able to go fast. And that is no good at all,' Koffi said, in his charming French-accented English.

For Koffi, one of the most important aspects of dance - of any kind of dance - is controlling energy. Not so much the energy in the endorphins-keep-you-going-for-hours sense, but in the sense of a force-field that each person has around him or her.

That energy can be better harnessed through a concentrated looseness than through the muscular posturing that is sometimes confused with physical power. 'Contraction is not strength,' Koffi said.

Being able to dance with free movement and an awareness of rhythm is as mental and spiritual as it is physical.

'There are some things that we ask the body to do, but we have lost the memory of how to do them.

'I often see that people can dance quite easily, when they come to the class in an open way, when they don't think 'I can't do this'.' Koffi is one of the last of the generations of Benin dancers who have had a traditional village training, beginning when he was eight years old by preparing for an initiation ceremony.

He and the other pre-adolescent boys of his village spent hours learning to mesh the rhythms of the drums with movements their teacher showed them. If they got it wrong 'then bam, and bam, and bam', Koffi said, imitating a stick hitting against the body, the head, an arm.

'It was hard, and very strict, but it was focused, a very good kind of teaching,' he said. 'At first I didn't take it very well; when you are young it is hard to accept discipline.' As he grew up, Koffi was strongly influenced by a village elder, who is now 104 years old, 'and very dynamic'. 'Whenever I go back to Benin I visit my master,' he said.

I asked Koffi what special influence the old man had.

'He saved my life,' he said simply. 'He's a healer, and when I was very sick he cared for me.' Koffi was just a little boy, he explained, 'perhaps five years old. My mother was dying, and I made a pact with the gods that I wanted to die in her place.' He fell sick with fever, and was also near death. When the old man cured both mother and son of their physical and psychological ills, his parents were grateful and, as was a custom, gave the young Koffi to the old man, to learn from him.

'I lived with both my master and my parents - it was a small village. He could ask me to do anything and I would do it. He could call me at five o'clock in the morning and tell me to walk 25 kilometres, and I did it.' These early morning journeys were as much to do with building Koffi's mental and physical fortitude as with any urgent necessity to fetch anything. 'He wanted to make me strong.' Koffi had a very traditional early education, but later moved to the town to attend high school.

'In the city I continued to dance: we used to get guitars and play traditional rhythms. It was a totally new vision for me: to think I could do my own new thing with the old dance forms I knew.' He and his friends worked in big hotels, earning money by playing and dancing for tourists and business people. Later he moved to Paris, teaching dance and choreography as well as performing.

His parents were, at first, disappointed that their eldest son should choose this path. In the emerging post-colonial West African nations, parents wanted to see their children become doctors, lawyers, engineers and bureaucrats, not traditional dancers.

'I had to have a hard head to dance.' That was not, he joked, just to withstand the knocks of his teachers' sticks. 'My master said to me I should never be afraid to do what I want to do.' In the end his parents accepted it, and since then have watched contentedly as (while his younger siblings fulfilled the doctor, lawyer and teacher expectations) their eldest son not only carved an international career, but became a technical adviser to his government, and opened dance centres in Benin and elsewhere.

This week he has two sold-out shows at the Cultural Centre, sponsored by Hermes in celebration of their African-inspired collections this season.

The piece, titled Passage, is one of the most traditional works in his repertoire, a homage to his religion.

Voodoo, Koffi said with the same spark of passion that he showed later when he spoke about Hegelian racism against Africans, has rarely had a good press.

'This came from a time in the 1820s when many slaves in Haiti organised a revolution against their French and Portuguese slave owners,' he said.

The slaves waged a clever psychological war against their masters, Koffi said, to make them afraid of the powers of the Africans.

'So they would cut the head off a sheep and put it under the bed of the mistress of the house. Or they would stick pins in a little doll looking like the slave owner or members of his family. So everyone thought voodoo was negative.' As well as being prevalent in parts of the New World, including Brazil, Haiti and Cuba, voodoo is the main religion of Benin. And while he has left Benin to live in France, Koffi has not left his religion behind. 'My spiritual journey is important for me; I take it very seriously,' he said.

With voodoo, gods were everywhere, like an aura of energy surrounding everything, he explained. 'They are in your head, in nature, in the wind. The thing is to enter into a dialogue with them.' Voodoo is one of few religions where dance is a prayer. 'We find divinity in the ritual of dance: it is a recognition of the forces around us,' he said, adding how interested he was, on his first visit to Hong Kong, to find both geomancy and protective gods.

His own children - he has five, 'three big and two little' - say prayers with him regularly, and sometimes dance. But they will not be dancers.

'I don't mind. Each generation has its battles. My personal combat was fought in the village; my children will find their fights in the city. Life is different for them. It is not worse, and it is not better.'