The temperature is pleasant for a February evening in Paris. We meet Gwen Rakotovao in a restaurant in the 14th arrondissement, where the manager is always in a good mood. He greets us cheerfully and asks if we would like an aperitif. The room is filled with the quiet, yet lively, strains of Malagasy songs. Gwen soon arrives. She has a big smile on her face, apologizing for being a little late and explaining that she's just finished an important rehearsal for her next collaboration with a Nigerian choreographer.
Gwen Rakotovao's whirlwind career as an artistic director, CEO, model, and author of children’s books has already taken her all over the world. She is used to living at breakneck speed, as her already accomplished career attests.
Rakotovao comes from a Malagasy family and was brought up in Normandy. From an early age, she wanted to “live life to the fullest.” As a child, she wanted to be a lawyer, but then she was swept off her feet by the dancing bug. At 17, with a baccalaureate in sciences under her belt, she left home to train as a professional dancer at the Rick Odums Dance Institute in Paris. Then she took off for New York City, where she joined the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School.
Although she barely has time to sit down, Gwen agreed to talk to Global Voices about her vision of her role as an artist in an ever-changing world.
Global Voices (GV): You are a dancer, choreographer, model, and an author. You lived for eight years in New York, where you formed your own dance company, the Gwen Rakotovao Company. When you look back at everything you have already achieved at your young age, doesn’t it make you feel a little dizzy? What motivates you to move so quickly all the time?
Gwen Rakotovao (GR): It is true that I have a wonderful career and that I have achieved a lot of things, but I rarely dwell on the past. Life as a dancer and choreographer can hold many uncertainties, so I prefer to concentrate on the present and the near future. As an artist, I have many things I want to say about the changes I would like to see in the world. That is what drives me to get up in the morning and carry on when obstacles get in my way. It is the desire to contribute to change that motivates me to create, dance, write, etc.
Gwen reminds us that she comes from a family of artists. She is related to the singer Bekoto, a member of the legendary Malagasy group Mahaleo. Below is a video recorded at a New York dance festival where the Gwen Rakotovao Company is dancing to “Lendrema,” a piece composed and sung by Bekoto.
GV: At the moment, you are working with a Nigerian choreographer. What is your view of the development of dance in Africa, and what are the important points or features of African dance that beginners are unaware of?
GR: Africa is a continent made up of many countries and diverse cultures, so there are many different styles and dancers, so it is difficult to give a summary in a few sentences.
One thing that is certain is that in Africa today there are many very talented young artists who want to push for and effect change so that they can be ambassadors for the continent. And it is always a pleasure to meet and talk with them.
GV: Your dance company’s style is influenced by different dances from all cultures. Is the theme of diversity something that you chose to highlight—is it your way of championing multiculturalism?
GR: It is not really a choice; it is who I am. I was born in France to Malagasy parents. I was destined to represent multiculturalism. My New York side has only served to enrich this multicultural aspect within me. Embracing three cultures is not necessarily an obvious move in a world where people prefer to belong to one group for fear of being rejected by others. From a very young age I had to choose to embrace who I am, a human being immersed in different cultures. And I am happy to do so, even if it isn’t always easy.
GV: “L'Amour, La Liberté” (Love, Freedom) is the title of one of your pieces. You have also founded a program for disadvantaged children and orphans from the Ketsa Centre in Vontovorona, Madagascar. You could say that you are a socially involved person. What are the social issues that you are passionate about, and what role could dance play in society today?
GR: Dance, I would even go far as to say art in general, is an essential cultural medium for change and plays an important role in our society. I think that the mission of any artist is to pass on a message. Mine is simply a message of hope for a better world. I hope that one day, despite our differences, we will be able to live harmoniously together. It is a utopia, but that is what I stand for and this is why I get involved.
GV: Is there a part of Gwen that the general public doesn’t know about and that you would like to share?
GR: I think the interview sums me up, but Gwen is a great dreamer [smiles].
GV: Thank you, Gwen, and good luck with all your projects!