Go Deeper Fragments of Unrest: An Interview with Olivier Tarpaga

Fragments of Unrest: An Interview with Olivier Tarpaga

Posted October 4th, 2017

Co-founder of the Baker + Tarpaga Dance Project, Olivier Tarpaga is both a choreographer and a musician who brings together disparate nations and identities to create powerful and meaningful performances. Working with his partner, Esther Baker-Tarpaga, the duo have generated a project-centered, transcontinental company that is based in both Philadelphia and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Their work has been noted for its intensity that “proved unforgettable” (Los Angeles Times) and for their projects that “metaphorically and abstractly decenter whiteness” (The Dance Journal). In their newest work, Declassified Memory Fragment, Olivier “declassifies,” or uncovers, experiences that many in Burkina Faso have lived through that are hidden from the world. Through the melding of dance and music, Olivier Tarpaga has created an exhibition of the memories of men in political military unrest from the many uprisings within Burkina Faso. We got the chance to talk with him about his process in creating the work and the contexts that informed it.

FringeArts: Do you remember how the title Declassified Memory Fragment came into being?

Olivier Tarpaga: It came to me during a research trip in Kenya in 2010. I grew up in Burkina Faso and have witnessed military coups in 1980, 1982, 1983, a very bloody one in 1987, and the revolution in 2014. This piece is addressing the issues of military coups. The irony is that in 2015 a coup in Burkina Faso happened the day of the avant-premier of this very piece at Denison University in Ohio. It felt like history revisited. Our country has been independent from France since 1960 and there are many fragments of my childhood memories during this time of political instability. I wanted to bring this issue into the open air and expose it with an artistic approach.

FringeArts: How did the choreography come about?

Olivier Tarpaga: I began the piece in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. With my cast we first began with speaking about the politics of ethnic conflict during the Kenya election and Ivory Coast war. We spoke about our memories and knowledge of the war zones. Several cast members grew up in conflict zones and their families were directly affected. I gave specific tasks, images, gestures and directions to research movement based on memories and experiences of different conflicts in the region. I then selected, transformed and composed phrases based on themes and emotions. We worked with live musicians creating the work and making solos, duets, and group work.

FringeArts: What made it important for you that it was an all-male dance troupe?

Olivier Tarpaga: This is purposeful because all these conflicts and wars we are focusing on were all created and directed by men. Men fighting for power. I am pro-feminist and thus I am specifically making a critique of men creating violence to grab more power. This is our first project with only men. Our company is not all-male, in fact it is founded by Esther Baker-Tarpaga and I. We frequently have mixed gender casts.

FringeArts: Can you describe how you approached the on stage relationship between the musicians and dancers? 

Olivier Tarpaga: In the context of West African tradition, music and dance are one. One does not exist without the other. I grew up in traditional and contemporary contexts. I am equally and musician/composer as dancer/choreographer. Live music affects everything and the dancers feel different and create different when the music is live. Once the movements are solid, it informs and inspired specific musical solo written for specific moments and emotions. Live music is a signature of Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project.

During the October 2014 revolution, an unarmed million marchers walked with their hands up towards parliament in Ouagadougou to stop an unconstitutional vote for the regime to stay in power. They were faced by heavily armed soldiers. When the army opened fire, there was no distinction of religion, ethnicity, class, sex or age. It was a blend of determined citizens. This is what inspired me to have the musicians sometimes invade the stage, perform physically and theatrically this way with the dancers in DMF.

FringeArts: What were you discussing the most during rehearsals with your dancers and musicians? 

Olivier Tarpaga: A lot of events happened in the continent during the research and creation process of the work between 2010-2015. We spent a lot of time sharing information and memories of wars, military coups and also sweet experience about what makes Ouagadougou and other African cities special despite the political instabilities. I was equally choreographing and composing the music so the whole cast would be on stage during such moments.

FringeArts: What aspects were most important for you to fine tune once the show was otherwise created?

Olivier Tarpaga: We had multiple showings of the work in Burkina Faso and received constructive feedback with people from all walks of life. The motorbike props bringing a nostalgic image of the city of Ouagadougou and the imposing set symbolizing the sandy roads and winds of the Sahel region. The white and red flower petals falling from the sky and the acclaimed Paris based lighting designer adding the cherry on the cake with his fine touch and radical ideas.


Declassified Memory Fragment
Baker + Tarpaga Dance Project

Oct 12 at 8pm
Oct 13 at 8pm
Oct 14 at 8pm

$29 general
$20.30 members (Click here to join and save 30% on tickets to all shows!)
$15 students & 25-and-under


—Interview by Josh McIlvain, June 2017.