Hand-to-hand political combat

“[…] Choreographer Anne Nguyen presented Matière(s) première(s), turning public and political attention towards African urban dances.

On the bare stage, a first dancer, a woman, appears under the spotlight. A jazz song, strong and fast movements, a hypnotic presence. Matière(s) première(s)’s introduction gives the tone of the show: no embellishments, straight to the point. […] The public got immersed into the universe of African urban dances. Like a precious material, the essence of their many dance vocabularies was skillfully presented by choreographer Anne Nguyen, in connection to the political context that they develop in: war, resource mining, violence… Through ndombolo, afrohouse, pantsula and many other dances, the dancers tell the story of a youth for whom movement is a vital outlet. After Underdogs and Heracles on his head, Matière(s) première(s) is the last part of a trilogy dedicated to the origins of urban dances, where Anne Nguyen shows the current growing momentum of those emerging from Africa overtaking those imported from the American continent.

Cast. Precision, impetuosity, and limitless commitment: the women and men dancing in the show are mind-boggling. The six of them – three women and three men – appropriate the uncluttered stage, unfolding orchestrated sequences of dance in group or solo, tuning their bodies to the pulse of the music. While we, as spectators, are nailed down to our seats, we are drawn towards the stage where we’d love to sit in a circle around them in order to feel the power of their dance from closer and to support their physical engagement.”

La Gazette de Montpellier – Cécile Guyez – January 2024

Matière(s) première(s), an African urban ballet

“In Matière(s) première(s), choreographer Anne Nguyen, who started as a breakdancer, offers a beautiful ballet of urban African dances, which questions the colonial perspective and seeks to break away from it.

For almost an hour of non-stop dancing, the six dancers deploy graceful fluid gestures, ripple their chests and move with swift footworks. […]
They come across each other, form geometrical patterns on stage, move around in circles, diagonals, straight lines. […] In Matière(s) première(s), she […] adopts a fluid dramaturgy, unfolding the fierce beauty of urban African dances, together with their political dimension.

Ted Barro Boumba aka “Barro Dancer”, Dominique Elenga aka “Mademoiselle Do’”, Mark-Wilfried Kouadio aka “Willy Kazzama”, Grâce Tala, Nahoua Traore aka “BLACK WOMAN”, Seïbany Salif Traore aka “Salifus”, become the ambassadors of these urban African dances, like gqom, danced on electro rhythms (to the image of the repetitive musics that punctuate the piece), coupé-décalé and its mind-boggling physical exploits, or ndombolo and the swaying steps shaped by its pelvic undulations.

Different scenes unfold, all naturally flowing from each other, where gestures conjure up violence (hand-shaped guns, bodies down on the floor, miming the charging of firearms), as well as solidarity (a circle where they face each other, a battle-like scene where one woman dances while the others around encourage her). This deployment of urban African dances, which are rarely seen on theater stages in France – even though they are accessible via Internet, on social networks, and taught in schools and workshops – questions the manner in which they are framed for the stage in France. Though since the XIXth century, so-called “exotic” dances have been exposed in cabarets and theaters, they are often coupled with the colonial dreamworld: the fascination for the elsewhere, the objectivation of the bodies, filled with erotic fantasies and ideas of super powerful bodies as far as black artists are concerned. How can we have access to those dances without slipping into those colonial dynamics? By the simple fact of choreographing these African dances, Matière(s) première(s) questions this framework. With its fluid dramaturgy, its refusal to choreograph virtuosity and its expression of political struggles, the piece seems to escape stereotypes. At least, from our European point of view.” – Belinda Mathieu – 27 January 2024

DANCE: The rebellious essence of hip-hop.

Interview with Anne Nguyen in the TV5 Monde international news program of January 22, 2024. Focus on shows Matières(s) première(s) and Underdogs, with video images of the shows. A look back at the choreographer’s career, the roots of urban social dances and her vision of hip-hop today, from its gentrification to the quantification of breaking for the 2024 Olympic Games. Presented by Patrice Férus.

TV5 Monde – Patrice Férus – 22 January 2024

Matière(s) première(s)” by Anne Nguyen: a dive into “afro dances”

“The new associate artist of La Manufacture CDCN de Bordeaux-La Rochelle, Anne Nguyen, talks about her latest production.

Danser Canal Historique: You are an associate artist to La Manufacture CDCN, starting from the 2023/24 season. Your first “appearance” will Matière(s) première(s). What is the material you are talking about?
Anne Nguyen:
This piece for six African dancers, women and men, urban and traditional, was created for the latest edition of Biennale de danse du Val-de-Marne. We are working on dances that come from the big African metropolis, which are very diverse, to the image of the different fusions and creolizations between the many ethnicities that live together in those big cities. Those dances evolve together with music and technological change.

DCH: How could you describe those dances that seem to point to a great creative vitality?
Anne Nguyen:
[…]The idea is to dive into the origins of those dances, just as I’ve done with Afro-American dances – aka hip-hop – by putting on stage very different identities, in order to put the spotlight on pioneers of those dance cultures in Africa, and to stage those dances without altering them too much.

DCH: How did you encounter those dance cultures?
Anne Nguyen:
Those urban African dances are emergent in France, they have spread beyond the African diaspora since the last ten years or so. The moves are more and more followed by the youth on social networks, they are even danced in schoolyards. Generally, the youth call those urban African dances “afro dances”, in the same manner that they call urban Afro-American dances “hip-hop dances”.

DCH: Why are you working on those dance forms in particular?
Anne Nguyen:
Today, hip-hop dances are institutionalized and are danced mostly in city centers and by non-popular classes, while in popular neighborhoods the youth are more interested in afro dances. This is why I am putting them on stage in Matière(s) première(s).

DCH: Before being a choreographer, you’ve been a famous B-Girl. How do you view today’s hip-hop?
Anne Nguyen:
The institutions that are present today alongside choreographers have forgotten that hip-hop initially was meant to enable the youth to federate. As a result, hip-hop no longer functions as a regulatory force to canalize violent energy. Today, social tensions are intensifying, and are perhaps being artificially nourished, while it is urgently necessary to reflect on the possible manners those youth can be supported. With that in mind, I chose to work on dances that the youth from popular neighborhoods are eager to see.” – Thomas Hahn – 28 November 2023

Matière(s) première(s) is a return to the roots of dance through an exploration of African urban musics.

“What prompted you to produce this show?
Anne Nguyen – There’s been a lot of debate in the past few years on the themes of racism and minority representation. Yet the world today is tending towards cultural standardisation, where the notion of identity is based on narcissism and a commitment to “progress” rather than on the cultural contribution of the individual. Exploring the ancestral “roots” of dance has always been an underlying theme in my work. I think that by abandoning the basic functions of dance and music, the modern individual has lost a great deal. When I went to Kinshasa [DRC] and Benin to give my breakdance workshops, I saw that dance was everywhere in Africa. Meanwhile, French music and dance traditions have disappeared over the past few generations only to be replaced by the hegemony of American culture, as reflected in hip-hop. When I was talking to the pupils at the end of my shows, I heard some of them saying that they were ashamed at the thought of their immigrant parents dancing. I wanted to use this piece to transform that shame into pride.

Matière(s) première(s) is like a journey into the world of African urban music. What about the dancers who embody the music?
Music transmits a memory of dance, and vice versa. African urban dance styles today convey what hip-hop dance conveyed at the time of its emergence: rooted in African traditional music and dance, inspired by “street” youth dance styles, they have a genuine social existence and unite all generations. As a result of video clips and social networks, they’ve extended far beyond African borders and have been adopted by most young people from the working-class suburbs, whilst hip-hop has become gentrified. I can see in them what drew me to hip-hop in the 1990s. With Matière(s) première(s), I’m looking to establish a connection between these dance styles and the social reality of the African youth, who have to put up with systems of economic and cultural domination that go largely unquestioned.

What do you look for in a dancer?
When a dancer expresses themselves, it’s the individual I see. Whether hip-hop or Afro, urban dancers have the ability to combine ancestral and modern in a way that makes them fascinating. When I watch dance, I project myself into every gesture in order to find new ways of bringing out the meaning, or possible meanings that are being expressed, so that the onlooker can read dance as if they were acquiring a language. I don’t teach dancers to dance, I immerse them into successions of situations that build a danced narrative. […]

Les Inrockuptibles – Phillipe Noisette – March 2023

Interview with Anne Nguyen in “L’invité 20 Minutes TV” on January 20, 2024. A look back at her career, her creative process, the origins of urban social dances, the social role of dance, the different forms that dance develops into for the stage and for the market economy, in light of the upcoming entry of breakdance as an Olympic discipline in 2024. With video images of Underdogs and Matières(s) première(s). A TV program presented by Renaud Parquet. 

L’invité 20 minutes TV – 20 minutes TV – Renaud Parquet – 20 January 2024

Urban dances in Sète

“LA GAZETTE : what is the starting point for the piece?
Anne Nguyen. This piece is part of a cycle of three shows on the origins of urban dances. Matière(s) première(s) is the conclusion of this trilogy, where I explore the dances that are currently practiced by today’s youth in lower-class neighborhoods: African urban and traditional dances. It doesn’t stop at their exhilarating aspect but questions the context in which they exist: the universe of mining, war economies…

How did you put the choreography together?
We worked on improvisations that then provided material for the creation of the choreography. Each of the dancers gave workshops to pass on some of their own vocabulary, focusing on a collective approach. We thus worked with coupé/décalé from the Ivory Coast, afro-jazzé from Gabon, afro-house from Angola, ndombolo from Congo or traditional dances from the Caribbean. […]”

La Gazette de Montpellier – Cécile Guyez – January 2024

Afro dance, urban legs

“The trendy, exuberant street dance of Gabon and Ivory Coast is beginning to find its way into French theatres, where its ambassadors can make a living from their talents more easily than in their home countries. Anne Nguyen and the coupé-decalé dancer known as Ordinateur each pay tribute to their dance in two different productions.

“Hip-hop has been gentrified”

For the show she is presenting at the Biennale de danse de Val-de-Marne, entitled Matière(s) premiere(s), Anne Nguyen and her assistant Pascal Luce “struggled big time” with the solely Afro-Urban casting. It’s understandable. “The dancers don’t really know what a show or a tour is, let alone the institutional stage environment… They are young, some have just arrived in France, they dance on TikTok and Insta, at parties, they give lessons on social media, and often have mini jobs at the Carrefour supermarket or the Post Office”. You can’t just post a casting call on Instagram. Major ground work was required using former Congolese schoolkids to help pass the word around. Girls only, many traditional dancers, turned up to the first audition. Then “some super talented people, but either they had no papers or were waiting for them to be reprocessed. That immediately eliminated at least four or five of the top dancers”. Barro is once again part of the adventure: “Virtually all the dancers in the two pieces choreographed respectively by Anne and Ordinateur, know each other, it’s a small community”. A regular visitor to the continent since 2003, Anne Nguyen has often come across their street dance on her numerous trips to Congo, home to the choreographer, Faustin Linyekula, and to Benin where she runs solidarity initiatives in favour of local autonomy. A trigger moment came in 2020 when she created an educational piece for a schools tour, which centred on a fictitious breakdancer named Bboy Goku accused of stealing some patented dance steps. The play is developed around his classroom trial. “When I was talking to the young pupils, I realized they weren’t the slightest bit interested in hip-hop any more. An African friend said to me: “Your show is aimed at primary and secondary schools… why didn’t you use Afro dance? They think breakdance is something for old guys!” Since when? “Since hip-hop became gentrified”, reply Anne Nguyen and Pascal Luce. Last year, the Ministry for Culture published a report on the situation concerning hip-hop dance schools in France: “The average yearly fee is 3,000 Euros. It’s not the case in Africa, but in France dancers have to be created. In playgrounds, nowadays, you can see 1st and 2nd form kids who can dance amazingly well, but it’s stuff that they’ve learned in the family context and then they mash it up with social media dance styles. They won’t go to dance classes. If you suggest they take up breakdancing, they’re just not interested!” Unfortunately, hip-hop and contemporary choreographers don’t help the situation. Very few of them are interested in this area of development, “and that shows there’s a problem”, the two artists continue. The battle environment, which Anne Nguyen describes as “rather elitist”, is not exactly very welcoming towards these young Afro dancers, if we are to read between the lines. “They’re probably a bit scared… Because they’re so good!”.”

Libération – Ève Beauvallet – 28 March 2023

“In her new show, Anne Nguyen intends to propose “an introductory journey”, blown up by six young dancers, to highlight the vital beauty of urban African dances while underlining the postcolonial issues at the heart of this creation. She temporarily leaves hip-hop and break to pay tribute to African urban dances, increasingly present and popular on social media. In her new show, choreographer Anne Nguyen declines a range of electric and organic styles […].”

Télérama – Rosita Boisseau – 14 March 2023

“A pioneer of female hip-hop in France, publicly acclaimed for her analytical pieces around choreographic art, Anne Nguyen presents her latest creation […]: Matière(s) première(s).

After Hip-hop Nakupenda in 2021, which highlighted hip-hop history from a Congolese perspective, B-Girl Anne Nguyen creates a ballet for six afro dancers and dives into the universe of urban African musics. […] The dancers’ performance highlights the mechanisms of colonization and Western cultural domination. With this piece, Anne Nguyen puts the spotlight on afro dance cultures and questions the imaginary built around it, orchestrating artists from this movement. […]”

La Terrasse – Louise Chevillard – 16 February 2023

Matière(s) première(s) – Anne Nguyen’s raw tribute to today’s Afro dance

“Anne Nguyen’s latest production is a nod to present-day Afro dance, a raw tribute to an essential material in a desire to make it visible.

Urban African dance, the life-force of an entire continent, has extended so far beyond its borders that its influence can be seen in the practices of present-day dancers. Hip-hop bears the signs of a developing art form which, through the use of video clips on social media, grows and transforms over time. Anne Nguyen, keen to return to the roots of that movement, opens a window onto the wealth of dance styles practiced by African youth to a backdrop of hip-hop and electro. And it’s a powerful start. The six female and male dancers throw themselves body and soul into a non-stop choreographic fusion of urban and traditional dance styles. The piece thus resumes the work already begun with Underdogs and Heracles on his head, where the choreographer weaves an intricate web between technique, discipline, cultural movement and music to convey an underlying political message. Tailored to the bodies of the virtuoso performers, to whom she pays heartfelt tribute every time, her dance has a direct impact by engaging with the audience, blowing them away by the power of the gesture. This time, Anne Nguyen takes the trouble to sub-title the piece ‘a ballet of urban African dances’ in a challenging approach and one that raises many other questions besides. […]”

La Terrasse – Nathalie Yokel – 29 mars 2023