Using Dance to Tell the Story of Mozambique’s Struggles

A soft voice broke into the dark auditorium, lit only by a projection of a globe bearing the outline of Africa on a screen.

“Who said empires don’t exist anymore,” the voice said, as dancers dressed in European colonial-era robes slowly emerged on stage, carrying what looked like crosses or swords. They banged on maps of Africa, as if divvying up the continent to their liking.

Over the course of the next hour, the performance, in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, grew into a frenetic dance of stomping and jabbing, the movements of warriors in battle, set to the beat of thundering drums.

“You’re such a liar that even if you lose, you can still win,” declared a man standing still at the back of the stage, in what seemed a not-so-veiled reference to allegations that Mozambique’s governing party had rigged recent local elections.

That man, Panaíbra Gabriel Canda, is arguably Mozambique’s most prolific and influential contemporary dancer and choreographer. And in many ways, this performance last month, at the same venue in Maputo where he launched his first work more than 25 years ago, was the culmination of a career that has traced the complicated political and social struggles of his country.

Born the year after Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, Mr. Canda, 47, has used his art to offer searing critiques of his nation’s evolution through the independence struggle, socialism, civil war, democracy and corruption. He also has taken aim at Western domination and jaded perceptions of Africa.

“My work is intrinsically connected to history — the archives of this country but in dialogue with the world,” Mr. Canda said.

Along the way, he started a company that helped to train countless dancers and develop Mozambique’s contemporary dance scene to the point where, last month, the country hosted “Danse L’Afrique, Danse,” the largest African contemporary dance festival on the continent, for the first time.

That’s where Mr. Canda was showcasing his latest production, Cheered Lies, an ambitious work that presented messages both challenging assumptions of African civilization as primitive, and condemning what he believes is a growing disconnect between political leaders’ words and their actions, particularly in his home country.

Mr. Canda’s career has been defined by a constant reassessing of what it means to be a Mozambican and “reflecting about our existence globally,” he said. He has explored the country’s search for an identity and its redefinition of values like democracy and justice.

“In Mozambican contemporary dance in general, there’s an issue of comprehension,” said Benilde Matsinhe, a journalism lecturer at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo who has covered contemporary dance. “With Panaíbra, that doubt does not exist. You don’t leave Panaíbra’s performance without understanding what this piece is about.”

Mr. Canda was born into a country pursuing a socialist project that saw the arts as a critical tool of indoctrination.

Many independence movements across Africa embraced Leninist ideology that advocated working-class revolution. One way Mozambique’s liberation movement, Frelimo, tried to spark such revolution was by promoting a new culture of socialist values, including through art.

Dance was used in Frelimo’s military camps during the war for independence that began in the 1960s, with fighters sharing dances from their communities with each other, said Marílio Wane, an anthropologist at the National Institute for Socio-Cultural Research in Maputo.

“We may come from a different territory, but I have to establish connections with that person, and dance was a tool for that,” Mr. Wane said.

In the early years after independence, former fighters were brought to Maputo to teach dances native to their areas of origin, leading to an inventory of 250 dances across Mozambique.

“There was also the objective of comforting those who fought the war by saying, ‘This is the country you fought for, now feel better,’” said Cândida Mata, a former dancer and instructor at the National School of Dance in Maputo.

Mr. Canda may have been born after the country’s freedom struggle, but he grew up in its legacy.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Canda said he was caught up in the euphoria of an independent Mozambique. He heeded the pleadings of the first post-colonial president, Samora Machel, for children to be active. He recalled attending events at Heroes Square in Maputo, where children sang revolutionary songs and cheered on their president.

Raised by musicians, Mr. Canda took a liking to dance as a young boy. His father, a locksmith by trade, played guitar in a band, while his mother, a seamstress, was a backup singer. His father’s music, he said, celebrated the liberation struggle, “glorifying the movement to fight for the country.”

At 16, Mr. Canda enrolled in a technical school near one of the cultural houses that developed during the socialist era to promote the arts. He was studying accounting, but that quickly took a back seat to his frequent visits to the cultural venue, Casa Velha, where he took theater lessons and joined a theater company. A traditional dance group formed in the house, and Mr. Canda said he eventually gravitated toward that art form because he saw dance as a more flexible medium to project ideas.

“People were expressing themselves freely,” he said. “They’d jump, dance, sweat and were not attached to a character or the script in classic theater.”

The instructors at Casa Velha invited former liberation fighters to come teach traditional dances, introducing several new techniques and traditions from around Mozambique to Mr. Canda.

Early in his career, Mr. Canda focused on traditional cultural dances that Mozambican dancers often practiced during the liberation struggle. But he felt that traditional dance stifled his creativity.

So he began to reflect on his life in Maputo, his present concerns and the burning issues in his nation — communism, democracy, freedom of expression.

He has a lot of material to work with these days. Many Mozambicans are increasingly concerned that their government is sliding toward authoritarianism. An extremist insurgency in the northern part of the country has led to some instability.

Mr. Canda’s work has expressed disillusion with politics, a sentiment that Mozambique’s leaders lie to their constituents.

But amid the pressing issues, he has sought to use new aesthetics and rhythms to transform traditional dance. He once mixed xigubo, a traditional Mozambican war dance, with fado, a musical genre of Portugal. It was an experiment, Mr. Canda said, to see what happens when you merge art from a colonial power that imposed its ways on his country with Mozambican tradition.

Through it all, Mr. Canda said, he is trying to understand his era and establish a historical record.

“I wanted to create something inspired in traditional dances but that reflected my time,” he said. “I hope future generations can understand our times through my work.”