I was sitting by my father’s hospital bed while monsoon-like rain showered down outside. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and said: “Dance, Ahmed, and you will be happy.” The next day, my father was dead. Those were his last words. I could not believe it. I was eighteen years old and completely alone in the world.
I spent my early childhood in the West of Burkina Faso, near the town of Banfora. We lived in a small house, surrounded by endless sugarcane plantations. That life ended when my uncle took me to his place in the capital, Ouagadougou. At the weekend he often met up with friends and left me on my own. At some point I discovered a television with a VHS recorder. In one of the films there was a short break-dancing scene. I was completely mesmerised by it. After that I soaked up anything I could find: James Brown, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk or MC Hammer. One time, at a friend's birthday, we were supposed to put on a little show. I went on stage and then something inexpressible happened: I danced! Everyone went crazy. My uncle didn’t like it at all. He was scared I would break off school to pursue a dream.
The next summer I went home for the holidays. I was looking forward to it, because my father loved it when I danced. I went into the house and called for my mother, but she didn’t answer. So I called my little brother. But still nothing, no one was there. Then I found out: Both had died independently of each other months earlier. They had wanted to protect me from the news, but this experience was traumatising. I stayed in Banfora. When I won a local dance competition at the age of fourteen, I felt something like joy again. But when my father left me that rainy night, it was finally as if my soul had left my body. During the funeral service I withdrew to my room. But then I heard music coming from the street outside. To this day I don’t know where it came from. And I heard the voice of my father again: “If you want to be free, you must follow your dreams.”
“Hundreds of people showed up, but Christoph was looking for just one single dancer.”
I looked for a job and began to study dance in Ouagadougou. After, in 2006, I went to Montpellier, received a scholarship for a choreography programme and toured Europe. When I needed a new visa, the woman in the embassy told me it wasn’t possible, although I had already paid. I got angry and said that I wouldn’t come back. She just said: “Very good, one black less.” I was repulsed by this blatant racism.
I travelled back to Burkina Faso and threw myself into practice. I worked harder than ever before: I ran until I felt blood on my feet, I threw my legs up so high that I broke my own jaw. During this time, Christoph Schlingensief invited me to a casting for his film “Via Intolleranza II.” Hundreds of people showed up, but Christoph was looking for just one single dancer. He had insanely loud rock music playing, totally crazy stuff. I was standing in the middle of the stage, surrounded by people who were all moving. I stood there, simply feeling the sadness, the darkness, the fury! When Christoph saw that, he banged wildly on the table and shouted: “You’re exactly the kind of person I was looking for”
Schlingensief taught me that an artist must share the most inner part of their soul: love, rage, euphoria. In 2011, my choreography won third place in the International Solo-Dance-Theatre Festival in Stuttgart. But the highlight was my collaboration with the German Symphonie Orchester in Berlin in 2018. It was a solo performance of Händels “Messias” and I wanted to show the audience: black people can be superheroes. What’s more, when we portray anger, despair or hunger on stage, we don't have to pretend. We know what it means to be pursued and threatened with war. Just like Jesus did.
Today, Africa still suffers from the lasting inpact of colonialism; we are often sidelined in our own countries. People cry: “Free Ukraine!”. But we have been fighting for our freedom for centuries. I have a plan to build a cultural centre in my hometown that we want to finance with our own resources. It will include a cinema, a stage for dancing and a school where children can learn for free. Because that’s the only way we can really be free: through education. That is my dream.
As told to Ruben Donsbach
Translated by Ysanne Cremer