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Michel Kouakou brings global perspective to dance

After a childhood in Ivory Coast, the dancer has led a nomadic existence in Europe, Asia and the U.S. and brings those multicultural influences of tribal tradition and contemporary moves to teaching at UCLA and to his performances.

May 26, 2012|By Susan Josephs, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Michel Kouakou, a choreographer and dancer from the Ivory Coast, has been teaching dancing at UCLA since 2009.
Michel Kouakou, a choreographer and dancer from the Ivory Coast, has been… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

When Michel Kouakou arrived in New York City in 2004, the Ivory Coast immigrant took a job at Whole Foods to pay the rent while pursuing his dream of finding success in the dance world. "But I was very clear with the store manager. I told him I'm a dancer and that this is temporary, that my first love is art," he says.

Kouakou, in fact, soon quit his day job. Having left his country in 1999 for a nomadic existence in Europe and Asia, he had already cultivated a reputation as a virtuosic dancer and risk-taking choreographer, equally fluent in the tribal dances he learned in his youth and the aesthetics of cutting-edge European contemporary dance. In New York, he started dancing for the choreographer Reggie Wilson and showing his work in venues such as Joyce SoHo and Dance Theater Workshop. But as he began to build his reputation in the United States, he continued traveling the world in his quest to absorb a global array of contemporary and traditional movement forms into his artistic practice.

"A friend of mine once said to me, 'Why don't you just stay in New York? All this traveling you're doing is too much.' I told him that before someone becomes a true artist, he has to search out art, and art is everywhere," he says. "I couldn't be the kind of artist who stays home."

Gradually, Kouakou's creative itinerancy began yielding significant dividends. He received several fellowships, including one from the U.S./Japan Creative Artists Program in 2008, which allowed him to spend six months in Japan studying Butoh and its similarities with African trance dance traditions, and in 2009 moved to Los Angeles to teach African and contemporary dance at UCLA.

Last month, the 31-year-old choreographer won the $25,000 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in the Arts and shared a photo shoot with Mikhail Baryshnikov, who received the New York City-based foundation's $100,000 award recognizing lifetime achievement in the arts.

Kouakou "personifies our creative promise prize in dance," says Marica Vilcek, co-founder and vice president of the Vilcek Foundation, which annually awards prizes to foreign-born scientists and artists. "He's a very well-rounded person, who has absorbed the dance traditions of various geographic areas while strongly retaining what he learned in his country of origin."

Victoria Marks, a Los Angeles-based choreographer and dance professor at UCLA, had supported Kouakou for the prize after recruiting him to teach for her department. "I saw that he was a wonderful asset to our community. He's an incredibly expressive dancer, but he's also an artist who brings his own history and thoughts about traditional dance into his work as an innovator of contemporary dance," she says.

Inside a makeshift office space at UCLA, Kouakou sits Buddha-like on top of three stacked tires, props for a new dance that he's premiering for a UCLA faculty concert on June 8. A compact, muscular man with dreadlocks neatly pulled back into a ponytail, he's also preparing for a whirlwind of summer and fall performances and teaching engagements in New Mexico, Poland, Mali, Germany, New York and the Bates Dance Festival in Maine. Happy yet circumspect about his recent good fortune, he hopes to use the Vilcek Prize money toward establishing an educational dance center in Ivory Coast, where students could learn from outside choreographers and forge a better understanding of their own cultural traditions.

"I want others to benefit from who I am and what I have to give," he says, choosing his words carefully and noting he struggles to express himself in English (his native language is Baule). "I grew up thinking that everyone is responsible for changing the world, no matter what corner of the world you're part of."

Born in the Ivory Coast town of Assinze, Kouakou describes a childhood equally full of hard knocks and lucky breaks. Raised by his grandmother as a baby and later by his mother and stepfather, he didn't meet his biological father until he was 30. As he grew up, his family struggled to make ends meet and lived in a house of two rooms, one of which he slept in each night with his eight siblings.

"I have no photographs of myself of when I was little," says Kouakou, who haltingly tries to articulate "how hard my childhood was. A lot of it I just don't remember."

Kouakou, however, vividly recalls watching a traditional village mask dance called Goli at age 7 and afterward, trying to reenact it. "My family also lived near a bar, and I would go dance there. People would give me coins, and I'd use them to help pay for school," he says.

Influenced by Michael Jackson, MC Hammer and Prince, Kouakou and his friends would create urban-inflected dance routines and perform them in street competitions. All the while his stepfather pressured him to play soccer and at one point, temporarily kicked him out of the house for piercing his ears.

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