Esther Baker ’97
Professional Choreographer and dancer, Senegal, Africa
by Alix Roy ’07
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 77, No. 1, Fall 2005
In ways such as the remodeling of Pickard Theatre, and the recent beginnings of the Walker Art Building renovation, Bowdoin has demonstrated its recognition of the arts as a necessary facet in liberal arts education. But in addition to merely providing funding for the many music and theatre groups on campus, Bowdoin encourages what Esther Baker ’97 calls, “the crossover,” between the arts and traditional academic subjects. Baker, who studied dance in conjunction with both French and Anthropology, found Bowdoin professors supportive of her dual interests, allowing her to utilize dance in other classes as an alternate tool for exploration and expression.
A semester abroad in Senegal ultimately motivated Baker to turn her love of dance and culture into a career. Walking through a small west-African village, she fell in love with the African approach to movement and dance. “Dancing is a part of everyday life there…you’re surrounded by it.” With members of every generation participating in dance, and children being encouraged at a young age to “just move around,” it’s no surprise that Africa has become a center for the emerging hip-hop movement. “People look to Africa for what’s happening,” says Baker, which makes living in Senegal “a great situation for any dancer to be in.”
After re-locating to Africa, Baker became involved with many choreography projects and was invited to perform her solo “Le President” at the Dialogue De Corps International Dance Festival in Burkina Faso. Several of her works have been filmed, including the recent “Ndox Mi/Water,” which screened at the Saratoga Springs Women’s Festival and at DanceCameraWest in Los Angeles. In “Ndox Mi,” Baker worked with the children of Grand Dakar, Senegal, using their colorful water-carrying buckets as props.
While she appreciates the intimacy of live performance, Baker recognizes the advantage of film in reaching wider audiences. Many of her dances are reflective of what she has seen while a resident of Africa, and while they are personal, Baker would like to think that those who witness her dances are able to take something away from them. In the piece, “Kuilenga/The Door,” Baker explores the issue of immigration with dancers tracing paths and discovering doors not always open to the “third world body.” Through her travels Baker has become more aware of the ease with which Americans travel compared to the difficulty many Africans face in acquiring visas and passports. This is discouraging to Baker who has seen many of her colleagues prevented from attending film festivals and performances in the United States due to immigration laws. “I feel that many world leaders are making peaceful exchange even more difficult,” she says.
In the future, Baker would like to focus her efforts on facilitating an exchange between students from Africa and the United States who are interested in dance. She is already involved with teaching at UCLA and beginning to build the foundation for a stronger international dance program.