During Pamoja Dance Company's first public performance in 2007, the crowd at Alliance Françoise Nairobi was first enraptured by the beat of drums, then awed by the troupe's synchronised movements on stage. You could see that this form of storytelling was new to most of the members of the audience for whom it was a first experience watching a dance performance with a mixed group of able-bodied and disabled dancers.
According to Joseph Kanyenje, the Company’s artistic director, this exciting performance was the result of weeks of practice and careful consideration of aesthetics. From the selection of theme music to intense choreography, the dancers created a liberating routine that exuded feelings of untranslatable words for both the dancers and their audience.
Pamoja Dance Company was founded in 2006 by Miriam Rother; a literature teacher and dance professional, and is the only dance troupe in Kenya that integrates dancers with and without disability. The troupe uses dance to explore subjects ranging from oppression to war, to climate change. Through dance, the members are able to explore and share their experiences, as well as the experience of others.
Joseph Kanyenje became the Company’s artistic director in 2009 when Rother left for Geneva. It was a big step up for Joseph who had met Rother in 2007 and signed up with Pamoja Dance Company after a single practice session with them. For Joseph, dance was not new; both his parents were dance performers and by the time he joined the group, he had been performing for quite some time. For Joseph and Pamoja, dance is a medium of storytelling. “Every story needs a medium and a raison d’etre. We tell our stories through dance”, says Joseph.
Pamoja Dance Company has performed on various stages including in the UK, and across East Africa. In July 2017 the company attended the Tuzine Festival, in Kampala, Uganda. The festival was graced by various dance companies across East and Central Africa and was curated by Mambya Performing Arts Foundation as a means to create awareness on human rights.
While at Tuzine Festival they met SPLASH an integrated dance company, similar to Pamoja. At the time, Splash was barely ten months old and was headlining a performance on human rights at the festival. Because of their shared identities, the two groups began a conversation about a possible exchange visit.
Two months later, in September 2017, Joseph and a group of Pamoja Dance Company members went to Uganda for three weeks on a mobility grant to learn from and exchange skills with SPLASH. During the exchange, Pamoja and Splash shared arts management experiences and ideas, and held forums to discuss dance and performance. Through the networking sessions, the Company met SPOTLITE, a Ugandan dance company that’s been working with artists for 30 years and specialises in a variety of performing arts. This led to a collaboration that will see Joseph curate and work with them.
Are you an artist/creative practitioner interested in collaborating across East Africa and the UK?
Cultural partners across East Africa and the UK can apply in June each year for our annual new Art new Audiences grant. We receive exciting project ideas for artists, arts organisations and art collectives to work together across Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and the UK.
Words by Frank Ogallo