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Choreographer and dancer Smail Kanouté honours young Black victims of gun violence in Never Twenty One

Mark Maborough photo of Never Twenty One
Parisian artist Smail Kanouté choreographed Never Twenty One, a PuSh Festival show exploring why Black lives are being cut short by gunfire on several continents. Photo by Mark Maborough.

Cross-disciplinary artist Smail Kanouté’s dance productions, videos, and graphic design attract tremendous attention wherever they’re shown. Part of the reason is the French-Malian’s imaginative and expressive use of the alphabet.

When Pancouver reaches Kanouté over Zoom, he reveals where his fascination with letters came from. It turns out that he stuttered as a child growing up in Paris’s diverse and poverty-ridden 18th arrondissement.

“I had to communicate with other language than the spoken language,” Kanouté says. “And that’s why I began to communicate with the body and with the shape of a line. For me, the symbols and the alphabet—this is more powerful than the spoken word.”

In addition, he points out that letters can be translated into different meanings for different cultures.

“That’s why I decided to do graphic design because for me, it was one of the tools to create and make a bridge between the body, between the scene, between the light, and between the sound,” Kanouté says.

Vancouver audiences can witness his love for the alphabet in his widely admired choreographic work, Never Twenty-One, which the PuSh International Festival for the Performing Arts will present next month.

The Compagnie Vivons show honours young victims of gun violence in New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Soweto. It features larger-than-life narration revolving around three dancers whose bodies are festooned with words spoken by the victims’ family members.

Mark Maborough photo
Smail Kanouté’s love of letters inspires arresting imagery in Never Twenty One. Photo by Mark Maborough.

Artistic journey begins in Paris

Kanouté says that the choreography of Never Twenty One reflects urban culture in different cities, including his hometown of Paris. He and his fellow performers, Aston Bonaparte and Salomon Mpondo-Dicka, incorporate a wide variety of styles, including contemporary, spiritual, modern, and street dance.

“The street culture changes in different cities because it’s mixed with traditional and local dance,” Kanouté states.

His artistic journey has led him in several different directions, enabling him to integrate different artforms.

It began in earnest when he managed to overcome his stuttering with the help of Parisian painter Christine Lehot. She taught him breathing techniques so he could speak to audiences. She also helped him to get into art school.

In addition, Kanouté’s artistic practice benefited from being exposed to many different cultures growing up in the 18th arrondissement.

“I learned the code, the style, and the types of the different cultures,” Kanouté says. “For me, it was very interesting to continue to work on this.”

He notes that because he’s a child of immigration, he understands the Soninke language of his parents. His dad chose to move to France for economic reasons, working as a garbage collector. His mom was a cleaner. And his parents didn’t talk a great deal with their children about what they experienced in Mali.

Moreover, Kanouté believes that many French-born kids of African ancestry aren’t keen to speak their parents’ first languages. He thinks that’s because they’re experiencing trauma because they were born in the colonizers’ country.

Video: Watch the Push Festival’s trailer for Never Twenty One.

Mali transforms Kanouté

After graduating in graphic design from ENSAD (National School of Decorative Arts), he travelled to Brazil in 2010. There, he began dancing every day.

Then in 2011, he visited southwestern Mali to investigate his family history. In his ancestral village near the city of Kayes, he studied different symbols.

“I tried to decolonize my mind…to ask questions to know the story of my family,” he says.

It was a life-changing experience, leading him to forge a new identity by integrating his French and Malian cultures.

“We don’t have the whole story of each part of the culture where we live,” Kanouté says. “So, to decolonize, we have to go back to the past and create a new present.”

Upon his return to Paris, he explored dance in a more structured way, working first with choreographer Raphaëlle Delaunay on Bitter Sugar in 2012. He then worked with choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb before creating Compagnie Vivons in 2016.

Through Companie Vivons, Kanouté weaves together what he’s learned through his international travels with his passion for graphic design to create multidisciplinary projects. His first solo dance show was about his family tree in Mali.

Kanouté discusses Yasuke Korosan, the second part of a triptych starting with Never Twenty One.

Kanouté likens choreography to painting

Never Twenty One—the first installment in a triptych—will be performed in Vancouver just as America is grappling with the growing body count of young Black men killed with firearms.

The most recent New York Times Magazine cover story, for example, featured 12 of the thousands of young people who died from gun violence in 2022. The publication reported that this is “now the No. 1 cause of deaths among American children and teens, ahead of car crashes, other injuries and congenital disease”.

Meanwhile, the second show in the triptych, Yasuke Korasan, is about a Black samurai and the third, So Ava. will focus on voodoo philosophy in cotemporary dance. In addition to each being performed on-stage, he will also develop them into short films.

For Kanouté, choreography has some things in common with painting. According to him, both artforms involve thinking graphically about the work. Only with choreography, there’s collaboration with dancers, who are free to propose changes where they might feel this is necessary.

As the interview draws to a close, Pancouver asks Kanouté about the meaning of his name. He replies that Smail refers to a prophet who hears something. In his Malian culture, Kanouté means people who are filled with love. And yes, he acknowledges, this name, Smail Kanouté, has greatly influenced his artistic practice.

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Compagnie Vivons’ Never Twenty One with The Dance Centre at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on January 19, 20, and 21. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.