"Occuping the space of the performing arts and recounting stories that are dear to me"
A conversation with Soa Ratsifandrihana, by Maria Dogahe and Eva Decaesstecker (Kaaitheater, 2023)
She has been dancing since she could walk and music is her refuge. She dreams of one day working with Jordan Peele, Björk or Rébecca Chaillon. Dancer and choreographer Soa Ratsifandrihana has been creating her own work since 2021. As a woman of second-generation Malagasy immigration to France and now a resident of Brussels, she uses the performing arts to recount stories and evoke references that are close to her heart and that she would like to share with a wider audience than the ones who always turn up.
You started working as a professional dancer at 19 and have collaborated with James Thierrée, Salia Sanou and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, among others. When did you make the transition from dancer to choreographer?
That is a question that I still ask myself today. (laughs). I think I started choreographing once I felt the need to give the stage my own framework. When I started, I had no ambition to do choreography. What I wanted was to dance. But for me to dance the way I wanted to, I had to choreograph too. So I think that's how it started.
As well as dancing and choreographing, you are also a writer. What is your background there?
My dreams of being an author come certainly from the French side (laughs). Writer is saying rather a lot. I write, yes, but I write for myself. One day I might share different kinds of texts, and I've done in the past.
But for the moment, it's mainly something I do with no real goal. It simply helps me to situate myself, to understand myself, to record the things I observe that I don't want to forget. Writing embraces my complexity and works on my sensitivity and senses.
So this is like preliminary research?
Writing is something I can do at any point. It's quite instinctive, I don't have a precise method as I'm looking for myself, but it has become clear to me that it's a very important space for me. It also allows me to be clear about what I want, what I like, what I don't want and what I don't like.
Is there a post-writing phase?
Yes, it happened to me with my first show, g r oo v e. After a year on the road, I needed to do some about the show and, in particular, how audiences perceived it. There are no words in that piece. With its abstract language, the body encourages interpretations that are sometimes far removed from the original intentions. For me as a racialised woman, it contained comparisons and competition with other racialised women. I felt the need to write about it. Those watching also determine how a show is read. When you are aware of this, that helps avoid unwanted interpretations or comments. All this led me to see the play differently.
I was astonished to discover an article saying that I had given classical dancing and popular dancing the same status. So much the better, because the distinction that is made between classical and popular dancing always irritates me. My body doesn't know the difference between a so-called classical movement and the latest craze. It's the symbolic interpretation that we project onto certain movements that creates this distinction.
At the moment, you're working on Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna, your new show which will be on at Kaaitheater's next season. Could you tell us something about it?
With Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna, I wanted to tell a story that I would have loved to hear as a child. I was born to Malagasy parents and grew up in France. Bits of their culture have been passed on to me, such as a love of Malagasy food and some of the values. Other aspects that form part of the Malagasy identity, such as language in particular, have sadly passed me by. In France, it was all about assimilation. I know that I have this in common with many children of the diaspora, of the second or third generation immigrants. It's well well known, Malagasy in France, Française at Madagascar... So you have to create another space, a third language. Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna is this third space that I'm going to imagine with along with some exceptional collaborators: Stanley Ollivier and Audrey Mérilus, dancers and creators, who have similar questions but undoubtedly with different answers.
To understand the choice of title, you need to know that I'm learning Malagasy. As a result of my interest in the 19th century and, in particular, a queen known as Ranavalona I, I learnt about a dance competition called 'fampitaha', which means 'comparison'. Having then been to Madagascar, the meaning changed completely depending on how you pronounced the word. Depending on where the tonal accent is placed, it is difficult to tell the difference between the words fampitaha (comparison), fampita (transmission) and fampitàna (rivalry) if we have not trained our ears to it. Nuances! That sequence of three words creates its own music.
The project is not simply a performance. It will also include a radio production and a show. Could you explain why you chose these different shapes?
The project is split in two parts: a radio production and a show. They arrive at two different stages of a longer search. I was keen to share the story with an audience what was wider than simply the niche theatre audience, so I was attracted to radio creation, which is easier to share.
The radio production, which we did in Madagascar in May 2023 with sound designer Chloé Despax and podcaster Prisca Ratovonasy, will be called Tsy izaho no mandainga fa ny olobe tany aloha – Ce n’est pas moi qui mens, ce sont les Anciens.. We met historian Helihanta Rajaonarison, choreographer Julie Iarisoa, storyteller Arikaomisa Randria and slammer Makwa Joma. The audio piece will bring together voices, soundscapes and a musical creation by Joël Rabesolo. Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna is about transforming this material into a physical, poetic and expressive language.
Is it a coincidence that your three projects – g r oo v e, Tsy izaho no mandainga fa ny olobe tany aloha and Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna – are part of going back to the origins?
To know where I'm going, I need to know where I've come from. I was always told that “a tree without roots doesn't grow”. I sometimes question my way of delving into the intimate, but that's just the way I am, and on a personal and artistic level, I need to hold on to realities that define me despite their complexities. I would say that returning to our origins is now mainstream.
We are seeing a desire among many artists to return to storytelling. Contemporary dance is often associated with abstraction. How do you see the relationship between narrative and abstraction?
The narrative is returning, true. At the moment, I am wary about what we refer to as abstract forms. During an initial residency for this project, I did some trials to see how radio and dance could interact. I accompanied soundscapes or testimonies by dancing. Sometimes, I would literally translate what we heard into movement. It was clear that that was unsettling. Spectators used to the setting preferred more abstract movements. That is something that I myself don't always understand and yet abstraction has been crucial in my career as a performer. I think many of us are asking ourselves the same question, to what extent do we explore the incomprehensible in order to stand out?
Is that why you for Fampitaha, fampita, fampitàna needs to be a dialogue between radio and dance?
This production deals with language. Before the arrival of writing, first with the Sorabe or Arabic alphabet and then with the Latin, Madagascar had an oral tradition. Orality can be magnified in a sound creation, not only as a content that carries meaning, but also as a sensitive language in its musicality, its singing and its rhythmicity. Dance can capture this and enter into a dialogue with it. We'll just have to wait and see!