Dokhontou: A Seattle Dancer’s Journey

by Rayna Mathis

Amid the unpredictable and ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the performing arts scene is still struggling to survive the impacts of this virus. For many artists, being able to perform to live audiences was critical to their craft. Not just for the financial aspect, but for being able to connect to their community as well. There has been loss and grief, isolation and fear. I’d even venture to say many of us, if not everyone, has at one point reflected on themselves and the world around them during this pandemic. If you were paying attention, how could you not?

But where there is loss, there is rebirth. Where there is fear, there is also love. Where there is grief, there is community.

Enter Dokhontou. On August 7, Seattle-based Senegalese dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director Kiné Camara, alongside her small but mighty cast and crew, debuted Dokhontou at the Evergreen City Ballet (ECB) to two back-to-back, sold out, and eager audiences. Camara is ECB’s inaugural creative residency artist. The Dokhontou cast and crew featured dancers Sharon Alitema, Alvedo Hobson, Dorcas Mwangi, and Creative Director and long-time creative partner Val Gonzalez. Together, Camara and Gonzalez self-produced the show, with the support of Catalyst Presents and ECB as co-production partners. 

Dancers performing Dokhontou (Photo: Mark Anthony Kathurima)

Upon walking into the building, attendees were temperature checked and shoes were disinfected. Masks were required at all times. Yes, even for the dancers! I walked into the small, intimate stage of the ECB’s Black Box Theatre to find the stage set with potted trees and plants, African cloths draped over handmade racks, and small mirrors that invited many aspects of reflection. I sat down eagerly in my seat and opened the program to the following words, “In the Wolof language, dokhontou means going on a walk or stroll. For this production, it represents the idea of a journey.” In just a couple of sentences, I knew I was about to be a part of something truly special. 

The first thing that stood out to me was the first dancer who entered the stage. Their palpable joy immediately captured my attention. Then, one by one, the other dancers entered the scene. For the next 20 or so minutes, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the magic unfolding in front of me. One moment, we were exploring traditional African dance and the next we were exploring contemporary African street dance (with accompanying beautiful outfits, of course). The show unfolded like a true story with each dancer embodying a different “character” from scene to scene. I couldn’t sit still in my chair, my body moving with the energy of the dancers and various sounds of Africa that Camara curated from Burna Boy (Nigeria) and Chiwoniso (Zimbabwe), to sound bites of interviews with Fela Kuti (Nigeria) and even Camara’s father.

Dancers performing Dokhontou (Photo: Mark Anthony Kathurima)

In an audio clip of a 2011 interview, Camara’s father speaks to the importance of the oral tradition of drum and dance; that it is an art and tool that should be practiced, shared, taught, and given. Honoring her father’s ideals, Camara does exactly that in her powerful production of Dokhontou. Camara’s father, Ibrahima Camara is a Master Drummer and dancer who has been a major influence for her. She began dancing professionally at eight years old in the family business and teaching in 2005 under his guidance. Her choreography taps into the diverse repertoire of African and Afro diasporic dance styles and aims to explore the themes between Western vs. African culture, and modern vs. traditional styles.

In the final scene of Dokhontou, the dancers invite the audience to clap along while Camara lovingly applies white paint to the other dancers in the background. And with that, the show came to a celebratory close.

Immediately following the performance, Artistic Director of ECB Bennyroyce Royon led a Q&A with Camara, Gonzalez, Alitema, Hobson, and Mwangi. It began with each person stating their name and role for the show. Alitema is an Ugandan dancer. Her role was to ground everyone but also hype everyone up when they needed energy. She definitely achieved that, as she was the performer I mentioned who immediately caught my eye at the beginning! Hobson was born and raised in Seattle. His role was to act as the strong male presence. Mwangi is a Kenyan dancer. Her role was to bring energy, love, and lots of presence to the show. Gonzalez built the set (with help from their friend Alex the Carpenter) and curated the wardrobe. Among the questions, came one from Seattle-based dancer, David Rue, “If you could wave your magic wand, what is the next iteration of this show?” Gonzalez immediately responded with a big smile on her face that they want to take the show to Cirque du Soleil! Count me there!

When Camara was 20, she took a hiatus from dancing. She decided to stop dancing and venture down a more corporate path, particularly in marketing and sales. All the while, she would hide in the back of Zumba classes, dancing on the side. But when the pandemic hit, she was laid off in September 2020 and decided she wanted to try to make dancing her full-time job. When asked how she wants to look back on this moment 20-30 years down the road, Camara simply answered that she wants to feel excited and proud about this moment. She continues to say how she has lived more richly than she ever has before. There may be less money in her bank account, but she has more time with the people she loves, she’s healthy and travelling, and is living authentically.

As ECB’s inaugural creative residency artist, it is no wonder why Camara was scouted by Royon to hold the torch and light the path for many more brilliant artists to come. Camara’s work is a transformative, engaging experience that feels raw and deeply personal. For myself, as a Black person living in the United States, I have little to no knowledge of my African ancestry, as is the case with many other Black folks who have grown up in this country. That blank space in our history is so loud and often so lonely. 

Dokhontou curtain call (Photo: Mark Anthony Kathurima)

But when I sat in the audience watching Camara and the other dancers perform, I suddenly realized I was having a sort of out-of-body experience; one where it felt like I was having a vision of an ancestor. And I don’t say that lightly. In the absence of ancestral knowledge, I have grown accustomed to never having the answers I want and need. I normalize that absence and allow it to turn into resignation. To feel an ancestral connection so unmistakably real and genuine was absolutely unusual for me, but very welcome. I didn’t realize it then, but I needed to feel that connection. Royon remarked at the end of the show, during the Q&A, that he believed we were all meant to be in that room, on that day, together. I think that perfectly sums up my experience.

These special moments, especially right now, are few and far between, so the honor of witnessing this show is not lost on me. We have to hold onto these moments so fiercely. In the meantime, we can continue to support the artists in our lives who help us navigate our pain, celebrate our joys, inspire us, help us heal, and offer relief during this pandemic. Camara is looking to further develop Dokhontou, with the intention to take it East, or develop an entirely new concept. Above all else, this young dancer is community grounded and encourages folks to stay connected and reach out so that whatever comes next is a genuine community effort. With that in mind, she wants to be able to attract more African and Black dancers to her creative vision, and be able to offer them unique experiences such as touring and paying everyone what they well deserve. 

Camara emphasizes how she doesn’t do this for the money, but rather for the community. Her top priority has always been to create a beautiful thing that uplifts African culture and arts and where African, Black, and POC feel honored, respected, and encouraged to share their stories. To support Kiné Camara, you can follow her on Instagram, join her Patreon, volunteer time and skills for their next production (roughly slated for early 2022), or take a class! On the horizon for Camara is the Rockland Woods residency in the fall, but before then she is kicking off her September Afrobeats series at Dance Underground, where all levels of experience are welcome!

Rayna Mathis (she/her) is a graduate of the University of Washington with a B.A. in history. Her work at the SAM as a museum educator, seeks to amplify the work and voices of teen artists and activists. In her spare time, Rayna can be found tending to her Little Library in Beacon Hill, outside of The Station coffee shop.

📸 Featured Image: The dancers of Dokhontou, left to right: Kiné Camara, Alvedo Hobson, Dorcas Mwangi, Sharon Alitema. (Photo by Val Gonzalez)

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