A crescendo of congas echoes across the Canal de l'Ourcq from the tent that is home to the Cabaret Sauvage in the north of Paris.
Inside twelve circus performers dance and somersault on stage under the watchful eye of the Cirque Mandingue’s director and founder, Yamoussa Camara.
“I love seeing the pride on the faces of these artists when we return to Guinea after a successful overseas tour,” Camara tells RFI.
Forming a family
Camara is an orphan and grew up on the streets of the capital Conakry in the 1970s and 80s.
He was able to feed himself by performing acrobatics on street corners. Camara came across like-minded street children and they choreographed more elaborate performances for passersby.
In 2009, he took his troupe to the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, and out of that came the Cirque Mandingue. Today the troupe is mainly made up of orphans.
“The circus is a job that relies on trust. It’s an unconditional love. We are a family,” explains Camara in between perfecting the dancers’ routines.
Suddenly, things turn somber inside the Cabaret Sauvage. The only woman in the troupe – Fatou – breaks into a haunting chant. The men sing an eerie chorus as they follow Fatou across the stage to a small wooden boat. The performance centres around the polemic of clandestine migration.
Camara becomes visibly animated when talking about the exodus of artists and young people from Africa, and the perilous journey they make across deserts and seas to reach Europe.
“Today migration is a global problem. Every day I see Africans experiencing misery in Algeria and Morocco on route to Europe,” laments Camara.
The performance is a call for migrants to return to Africa, endure the hardships and use their skills to develop their countries.
On the beach
Camara prides himself on providing opportunities for young people in Guinea, but it’s not easy. The Cirque Mandingue had a circus school for a few years until it ran into financial trouble. Now they train on the main beach in Conakry.
The Cirque Mandingue is all about physicality rather than equipment. The troupe form human towers, perform street dance routines and there are contortionists among them. These kinds of tricks require agility and strength rather than man-made apparatus. There are no bars, ropes or safety nets, just the sand on the beach to break their fall, if need be.
Like the entire population of Guinea every member of the troupe knew someone who died from the Ebola virus. The Cirque Mandingue was not allowed to travel during the epidemic that lasted two years, from 2014 and 2016.
Fearing it could cease to exist, Camara would call his contacts in the Paris theatre world as often as he could afford phone credit. He kept the lines of communication open with Europe and he and his troupe were able to travel to Paris in 2017, a year or so after Guinea was declared Ebola-free.
“We survived Ebola, so we can survive anything. We won’t stop until we reach the level of Cirque Soleil, or higher,” says Camara, as his performers take a break before their premier a few hours later.
The Cabaret Sauvage fills up, the performers burst on stage and the congas set the tempo for heart-felt show with a muscular message about the perils of clandestine migration.