Serge Aimé Coulibaly – Rokia Traore – Felwine Sarr

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives (…) and our best friends have been killed (…), and that means the rupture of our private lives.

(…) once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy our food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable.

(…) we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while, since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction.”

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” January 1943.

Using inspiration from his own African background and his reflections on today’s world, Serge Aimé Coulibaly creates Kirina, a narrative about his contemporary and globalized daily reality. Kirina is not the reenactment of a historic event from West-African History. The original epic only served as an inspiration during the creation, as did many other epic stories and real contemporary events. Kirina is not a performance by African artists about Africa. It is a performance by world citizens – a choreographer with and an artistic team of members both with and without African roots – and inspired by their actual globalized reality. Derived from these inspirations, Coulibaly creates a performance about people on the move, the events that color and possibly direct these migrations and their influences on society.

Using a form that is very close to that of a traditional ballet with different chapters, he creates different moments of great emotional impact. There is the man who goes against the natural flow of time, as if the future and the people on the move could be held back. There is the community which in order to survive calls for its most profound energies, as if only their instincts will help them to move on. There is the woman struggling with femininity as a strategy. There is a man that cannot or can no longer walk who is encouraged by his environment to stand up, a clear reference to the epic Soundjata who was handicapped but just as well to all those images of exhausted migrants. There is the celebration of the fittest. There is the man who is chosen to sacrifice himself for a better future and is sent out on the sea, a scene based on a contemporary African tradition in which the ceremony for the death of those leaving the community and risking their lives at sea is held before their departure in case they won’t return. There is the big human flow that symbolizes migrations from all times and the individuals that are destabilized by their strength. There is the celebration of a (feminine black) leader. There is a wedding. Life continues no matter what the circumstances are. There is a rain dance in the middle of a sandstorm. To survive certain contexts superstition is more effective than belief in statistics and numbers. There is the lapidation of a strange woman who refuses to adapt, her hunchback a clear reference to Soundjata’s mother Sogolon but a situation that occurs today involving “strangers” all over the planet who are treated as if they were human waste just because they are or behave different. There is a general panic for no clear nor present reason, so well-known since the concept “terror attack” has integrated our societies. There is the big battle between two superheroes, the epic Battle of Kirina for sure but how different is it from our contemporary entertaining elections and debates? And there is the creature that derives from it all. Dangerous? Beautiful? Seductive? Violent? Is he the herald of a better future? Does he predict the apocalypse? Or is he no more than one small individual who endures life in his own personal way?

And in between, before and after all of that … there is the walk. The endless walk of humanity towards its destiny.No matter what.

The origin of Serge Aimé Coulibaly’s Kirina is to be found in 2015 and what has since been called the “European Refugee Crisis”, its media coverage and the political speeches that it evokes. The way those people and communities on the move were evaluated, described and labeled once they had left their homelands – as if they did not have a rich cultural background, as if they did not come from some of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world, as if they did not have an education, as if they did not have any human value – deeply touched Coulibaly. It has taken a few years of digestion and research to turn this first outrage into an artistic creation.

At the time of the events, Coulibaly was in the middle of the creation of GLOED, a performance with 50 elderly dancers. Inspired by the daily images of people on the move and by the reality of the large group of dancers in the creation, it was decided to use the walk” as the basis for the creation and its physical research. After a first trial in this small local creation with mainly amateur dancers, Coulibaly decided to develop this chorographical material further and on a larger scale in Kirina. The migration of humanity being the central subject of this creation, both in its narrative as in its form.

A second great influence on the creation of Kirina has been Felwine Sarr’s essay Afrotopia (2016) in which he encourages Africans to develop their own ideas on how to balance out political, economic, cultural, symbolic and environmental aspects in their societies. Instead of imagining a future within the framework of imposed (neoliberal capitalistic) ideologies, Sarr encourages communities to reflect from their proper cultural histories and to develop a position in a globalized world starting from that local imagination. For this Senegalese economist and academic, Africa can offer the world a new “project for civilization” more respectful of humans and the environment, if only she accomplishes “a profound cultural revolution and gives birth to the newness that she is carrying”. “Today,” Sarr states, “we find many global stories that inhabit us, but African stories are very little present. They circulate and feed the global imagination less.”

Nourished by Sarr’s book and their ongoing personal dialogue since 2017, Serge Aimé Coulibaly decides to take a popular, mythologized Western-African story as a base for this creation. The battle of Kirina (c. 1235) proved to be an interesting point of departure because it presents motifs and themes that pose current questions and that can be universalized. The story of the battle is retold in the Epic of Soundiata an instance of oral tradition, narrated by generations of griot poets and widely considered Mali’s national epic.

A second important reason for the choice of this specific epic as an inspiration for this new creation of his, derives directly from Coulibaly’s first outrage towards the limited contemporary view on migrant’s backgrounds and the common prejudices about their cultural and intellectual underdevelopment. According to the Epic of Soundiata, the Mande Charter or the constitution of the Mali Empire was created after the Battle of Kirina by an assembly of nobles to create a government for the newly established empire. According to oral tradition of the griot poets, this charter established the federation of Mandinka clans under one government, outlined how it would operate and established the laws by which the people would live. This thirteenth century African charter is considered by many as a first version of the declaration on the rights of man, long before the European version that followed the French revolution some 500 years later.

It is also this choice for the Epic of Soundiata as a base for the creation that led to the collaboration with composer Rokia Traore. Which contemporary African voice could reflect more strongly on the energy of this strong tradition and its possible bonds with today’s reality? Few artistic careers are at once as free and as rooted in tradition. Traore has often been called unique, post-traditional, mutant, so easily she seems to find herself at unknown crossroads, at confluences both unpredictable and determined by her personal history. Her music proved to be essential for the creation of this new epic, rooted in ancient traditions but talking about today’s world.

As in all of Coulibaly’s creations, Kirina does not offer its audiences a clear answer to the questions it puts on the table. The performance aspires to open a space for reflection and dialogue about our contemporary global society and its ways of dealing with “the other” and migrations. In order to do so, it uses a great West-African epic to seek in those roots the moments of survival, bravery, virtue, regeneration and heroism and to share those human values with our world.

World premiere: 

29 June 2018 – Festival de Marseille (FR) / 18 August 2018 – Ruhrtriënnale

A performance for 9 dancers, 1 actor, 4 musicians, 2 singers and 40 local extras


Concept and direction
Serge Aimé Coulibaly

Composition and musical direction
Rokia Traore

Sara Vanderieck

Choreographical assistant 
Sayouba Sigué

Felwine Sarr

Created and performed by
Marion Alzieu, Ida Faho, Jean-Robert Koudogbo, Antonia Naouele, Adonis Nebie, Ali ‘Doueslik’ Ouédraogo, Daisy Phillips, Issa Sanou, Sayouba Sigué, Ahmed Soura
Aly Keita/Youssouf Keita (balaphone), Saidou Ilboudo (percussions), Mohamed Kanté (bass), Yohann Le Ferrand (guitar), Naba Aminata Traoré & Marie Virginie Dembélé (singers)
& 40 local participants

Catherine Cosme

Salah Barka

Eve Martin

Light design
Nathalie Perrier

Light technician
Hermann Coulibaly

Video technician
Jérémy Vanoost

Sound technician
Ralph M’Fah-Traoré

Pre-production manager
Eline Vanfleteren

Production manager
Laure Louvat, Hanna el Fakir

Technical direction
Jan Mergaert

Artistic advice
Thomas Prédour

Coordination Faso Dans Théâtre
Lies Martens

Ruhrtriennale (DE), Festival de Marseille (FR), De Grote Post Oostende (BE), La Villette Paris (FR), les ballets C de la B (BE), Théâtre National Wallonnie-Bruxelles (BE), Romaeuropa Festival (IT), Kampnagel Hamburg (DE), Kunstencentrum Vooruit Gent (BE), La Rose des Vents Villeneuve d’Ascq (FR), ExtraPôle Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (FR)

Executive producer
les ballets C de la B (BE)

FransBrood Productions

Thanks to
Ankata (Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso), Fondation Passerelle (Bamako, Mali)

With the support of
Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles and Taxshelter Belgium