Big Prize for High Priest of Silent Dance
April 9, 2006, Susan Karuoya, Nairobi
lights dimmed and an expectant hush descended on the auditorium in Nairobi.
The Kenyan recipient of the prestigious Prince Claus Award was just about
to emerge from the darkness and show the audience exactly why an international
panel of judges from the Netherlands, Brazil, Syria, Indonesia, South
Africa, Mozambique, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Australia saw it fit to accord
him this honour.
For his lifetime struggle to foster recognition and appreciation for his
unique expression of the arts and culture through contemporary dance,
Okach was honoured last Thursday night with the Prince Claus Award at
an event held at the Godown Arts Centre in Nairobi's Industrial Area.
The Prince Claus Award, is the highest accolade that Okach has ever received.
But it is not his only prize.
Three years ago, this artistic director of Gaara Company (the first contemporary
dance company in Kenya) won the SACD Prix du Nouveau Talent Choregraphique
(Prize for New Choreographic Talent) award for his work. In 1998, Okach
walked away with the bronze trophy at the African Choreographic Encounters.
A year before that, Okach had been bestowed with a similar prize for his
very first piece, Cleansing.
Dilo, his second piece, for instance, drew its inspiration from a traditional
Ethiopian song that he listened to. "A friend of mine gave me this
recording of an Amharic woman singing while working," he narrated.
"I could hear her grinding something, maybe millet, in the background.
Her baby cried intermittently into the music, and that entire melody took
me back to my childhood in the village. I remembered how we used to grind
maize at home. The women and their children would all be out in the compound
doing various activities. That got me interested in finding out more about
nomadic lifestyles. What were their traditions, their cultures?"
These questions set him on a two-year quest at the end of which Okach
had put together an abstract piece that fused traditional elements with
The second-born in a family of four, Okach was born in Magadi, on 15 June
1963. His interest in theatre began soon after high school.
"While at Kisii High School, I studied literature and discovered
a passion for the arts, he says. After high school, some friends of mine
who were already working with theatre encouraged me to join them."
One of these friends was former actor and choreographer Asiba Asiba.
"I started to frequent theatre groups and worked with Jacob Otieno
and Opiyo Mumma, among others," recalls Okach.
The turning point for him, however, came after attending a mime workshop
at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi in 1988. The workshop was conducted
by French artiste Laurent Decol, who was on tour.
"It is here that I discovered I had a passion for movement. I was
fascinated by this form of expression and began to develop my own work,"
the dancer says.
For one whole year, Okach researched heavily. At the end of 1989, he had
developed a full length performance ready for show.
Lady Luck had begun smiling on him. For when Okach approached the British
Council for a grant to fund his work, his proposal was accepted.
He later joined Desmond Jones School of Mime and Physical Theatre in London
for a three-year course. While out there, Okach absorbed everything he
"I was exposed to a vibrant culture of art, mime and dance,"
he says of England.
Five years later, Okach was ready to return and share his wealth of experience
and knowledge with his countrymen.
"I wanted to develop my own dance routines," he says. "I
wanted to research further into our own rich traditions and cultures,
so I came back in 1995 and began to teach dance classes at the Kenya Conservatoire
of Music to earn some income while I continued with my research into traditional
dances and rituals."
A meeting with Faustin Linyenkula from the Democratic Republic of Congo
and Afrah Tenambergen from Ethiopia expanded his dream of performing with
movement, and Gaara Company was born.
A series of workshops organised by the French Cultural Centre for leading
West African choreographers would set up a memorable meeting between Okach
and the legendary Germaine Acogny from Senegal and Alphonse Tierou from
Cote de Ivoire.
Acogny is to date still referred to as the "Mother of contemporary
African dance".In 1996, the trio of Okach, Linyenkula and Tenambergen
designed Cleansing, the first production by the Gaara Company.
"This performance was very striking," says Okach. "There
are many variations of African dances that are as yet not fully explored
but bring out the same vibrant energy, so we went away from the traditional
colourful costumes and vigorous, energetic dances that Africans are famous
for. Instead, we created the silent dance which was very different from
the norm, but our message was clear."
The trio's unique style attracted international attention. They were invited
to the African Contemporary Encounters - a conglomeration of more than
10 companies in the continent that meets every two years - where they
received their first recognition.
"That prize boosted us and encouraged us to create more," Okach
With the international recognition came opportunities to tour the world.
"We've taken our performances all over Europe - France, England,
Germany, Italy and Spain - and to more than 20 African countries."
But it wasn't always like this. It was very hard in the beginning for
the group. Because dance was not appreciated as a serious form of theatre,
they had to supplement their incomes by teaching to local and international
students at the Conservatoire. They also worked on product commercials.
"Even touring abroad in the initial stages was difficult because
coordinating three dancers, from Kenya, DRC and Ethiopia, was no easy
task. But I'm glad we overcame the challenges because it has brought me
to where I am now, he says.
After Cleansing came Dilo, a solo performance by Okach. He reworked it
in 2000 and also presented another dance called Mikayi - performed in
France by a trio of women. Then came Abila, performed in 2002 by six dancers.
No Man Is Gone Now, a solo designed specifically for a big festival and
performed by Okach himself, was presented the following year in France.
Last year, he unveiled Shift Centre, featuring 11 dancers, in Kenya. The
dance is, however, an ongoing project. They are always transforming it
and introducing different formations into the performance.
Okach's long-term project is Generation 2001. Supported by Ballet Atlantique,
Regine Chopinot, Ford Foundation, French Cultural Centre and Association
Francaise d'Action Artistique, this programme seeks to develop dance,
theatre, cabaret, modelling and visual arts through a series of workshops.
"I'm happy and impressed that a large number of young Kenyan dancers
have emerged," he says. "More people have expressed interest
in my work and this is quite motivating. Nonetheless, there are still
numerous challenges to overcome, including convincing the local audience."
When Okach is not doing this or working with performers, he is busy organising
meetings of national, regional and international choreographers.
The last such meeting drew participants from Kenya, South Africa, Mali,
Madagascar, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Spain, Italy,
France and Canada.
"I'm really excited because I see a bright future for dance in this
country," he concludes.