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Ballets Africains, Les

The International Encyclopedia of Dance

Louise Bedichek

Ballets Africains, Les. 

Founded around 1952 in Paris by the Guinean intellectual Fodéba Kéita, Les Ballets Africains was originally comprised of musicians and dancers from throughout the French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. First known as Les Ballets Africains de Kéita Fodéba, it became the first of the African national dance companies, known as Les Ballets Africains of the Republic of Guinea, when Kéita presented the troupe to the new nation following Guinean independence in 1958.

Although not the only Guinean dance troupe of the period before independence, as the longest surviving and best known, it is considered to have pioneered the genre of African theatrical dance that has been influential both in Africa and in the West. In this genre rhythm patterns from a variety of cultures are performed in segments in choreographed works. A rhythm pattern that might be played for hours in a village celebration becomes a segment of ten minutes or less. Some pieces have elaborate stories, others are based on themes or moods such as Serenade. None are abstract. Both musicians and dancers are costumed. The creation of new work is a collaborative process involving all company members, who are asked to contribute songs and step patterns known to their families. After forty years Les Ballets Africains continues to find new material in the villages of Guinea. A trip in 1991 by the technical director and choreographer to seven towns in the Guinean interior for research and informal auditioning was beautifully documented on video by Guinean filmmaker Lamine Camara.

Music and dance have a central place in traditional African political and cultural life, and under the first regime after Guinean independence (1958 to 1984) were used to galvanize a new national identity. Les Ballets Africains toured in the interior of Guinea as part of the campaign leading up to independence. Kéita was elected to the Territorial Assembly of Guinea as the representative of Siguiri, his home district, and in 1957 became minister for internal affairs. In the first decade of independence he held important positions in the new government, but in 1969 he was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Camp Boiro, never to be seen again by his family. After the death of Guinea's first president in 1984, the dissolution of the national performing arts troupes was widely expected. However, although the government no longer provides extensive administrative and financial support to national and regional troupes, Les Ballets Africains and the second national dance troupe, Le Ballet National Djoliba, have survived the transition, and along with newer ensembles, participate in national and local celebrations in addition to international touring.

Since 1986 the three most important members of the management committee of Les Ballets Africains have been Italo Zambo, director general; Hamidou Bangoura, technical director; and Kemoko Sano, choreographer. Zambo was born in Dakar in 1939 and joined Les Ballets Africains in Dakar in 1955. By the mid 1960s, Zambo and Bangoura had become the two principal male dancers and were considered to represent the artistic management of the company. Bangoura headed Les Ballets Africains from 1980 to 1986. Sano, who directed Le Ballet National Djoliba from 1973 to 1986, was asked to select ten musicians and dancers from that troupe to transfer with him to Les Ballets Africains in 1986.

From its earliest years Les Ballets Africains has toured extensively internationally in Europe, North and South America, Japan, Australia, and also in Africa. It toured West Africa in 1956 and first performed in the United States in 1959. According to Richard Long, in his book The Black Tradition in American Dance (1989), “The success of the Ballets Africains contributed to a widespread movement in the United States.” The company was seen less outside Africa after 1973, until 1990, when it resumed a very active touring schedule under new management. In December 1991 Les Ballets Africains performed in Accra at the invitation of the government of Ghana.

Fodéba Kéita had set some of his works for Les Ballets Africains in the colonial period, notably Minuit, a tragic love story that Guinean Television produced with the company in 1988 in tribute to him. On international tours in 1990 and 1991 Les Ballets Africains presented a mixed bill that included older works such as Malissadio along with the newer La Cloche de Hamana (The Bell of Hamana), with which the company had celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Guinean Independence in 1988. On tours in 1993 it presented a new evening-length work, Silo: The Path of Life, the story of a mother with two sons, and in 1996, Heritage, which combines history and legend.


Charry, Eric. A Guide to the Jembé. Percussive Notes 34.2 (April 1996).Find this resource:

    Fleming, Bruce. A Conversation in Conakry. Danceview (Autumn 1993).Find this resource:

      Fodéba, Kéita. About Les Ballets Africains. Christian Science Monitor (31 January 1959).Find this resource:

        Kaba, Lansiné. The Cultural Revolution, Artistic Creativity, and Freedom of Expression in Guinea. The Journal of Modern African Studies 14.2 (1976): 201–218.Find this resource:

          Long, Richard A. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York, 1989.Find this resource:


            Afrika Tanzt, Insel Film (Munich, c.1963).Find this resource:

              International Zone: AFRICA DANCES, United Nations Television (New York, 1967).Find this resource:

                Naitou, Syli Cinema, Moussa Diakité (Conakry, Republic of Guinea, 1982).Find this resource:

                  Minuit, Radio-Television Guineenne–RTG (Conakry, 1988).Find this resource:

                    Les Ballets Africains, After-Image, Channel 4 TV (London, 1990).Find this resource:

                      Heritage, Queensland Performing Arts Trust (Brisbane, 1996).Find this resource:

                        Dance of Guinea, Prefectures of N'Zérékouré, Lola, Macenta, Siguiri, Mandiana, Boké, MGZIC 9-5067 to MGZIC 9-5072, Dance Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; documentation of a 1991 trip to the Guinean interior by Hamidou Bangoura and Kemoko Sano of Les Ballets Africains.Find this resource:

                          Louise Bedichek