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A talking drum: Les Ballets Africains.

The Revolution in Dance
By Mae G. Banner

Les Ballets Africains
The Egg, March 7

In African tradition, dance and all the arts are part of life. Storytelling, music and movement are not walled off from religion or politics, but are put to use to make a point, to mediate conflict, or to introduce social change. Still, today, dance is of use.

For the most part, the industrialized world has turned artists into specialists whose place is restricted to the stage. So it took some adjustment for me to get the didactic import of the dances presented by Les Ballets Africains, a professional troupe of dancers, musicians and singers from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa. Rhythm, strength, skill and style were in abundance, but politics and teaching were the motives for the dances.

Extensive program notes helped fill in the background and the contemporary political thrust of dances such as Vive Mieux: To Live Better, a graphic depiction of genital mutilation and the campaign to end the practice. The story is told through mime and driven by the drumming of an onstage group of players.

Two women in red head-scarves protect a young woman from a marauding man and drive him off. But, then, they take the young woman offstage to be cut. Her screams are chilling. When she reappears, she can’t walk and must be supported by the women. Now a nurse, in crisp white uniform, enters to confront the cutters and assuage the woman’s pain. The nurse gets one of the cutters to put down her knife and, in mime, to wash her hands of it.

The program notes announce that Guinea became the first African country to outlaw mutilation practices. Surely, this dance, performed for village audiences, must have been part of the campaign. Now, performed in theaters, it is part of the record.

Story-dances filled the program. We saw a faux white colonialist dressed in safari suit and pith helmet try to overpower a resistant woman. She breaks free of him and runs offstage to be with her true love. Though her friends try to counter the colonial power—four men in Marcus Garvey-type plumed helmets dance fiercely to show their prowess, and a corps of women step with fast, furious energy—we hear an offstage shot that tells us this encounter ended tragically.

All the regions of Guinea were celebrated in The Symphony of the Grand Mask, an initiation of young men into adult responsibilities. The prelude to this huge full- company dance with its tall, masked god-figures and clangorous bells, flutes and polyrhythmic drumming, was a commanding solo by a white-robed priest who played the kora, a double-necked string instrument, made from a big-bellied gourd, that hung around his neck.

For me, this was the most beautiful, time-stopping part of the performance, imposing, yet pristine.

This consecration of the stage gave way to a lyrical dance (unusual in theatricalized shows by African troupes) in which a chorus of brightly-robed women swayed and sang in pairs, surrounding the priest, their bodies moving like reeds in a wind. It was a lovely, calming stage picture, an extreme contrast to the rousing celebration that followed.

In The Revolution, the company of a dozen women dancers/singers, six men dancers/singers, and eight musicians performed at full-tilt, sometimes dancing and drumming at once, sometimes adding the polyrhythms of their torsos, arms and pelvises to the equally complex rhythms of the drums. At one point, women leapt on top of their big cylindrical drums and continued to beat them with drumsticks as they danced.

The first half of the program was called The Culture of Africa: History and Humanity as Art. The second part was Cultural Action Becomes a Factor of Social and Economic Ammunition Against Poverty, a mouthful and a serious project, but full of exuberance and comic satire all the same.

One highlight was a challenge dance between traditionally costumed village women and smug-looking city women dressed in tight pants, baseball caps and sneakers, who come back home to pose and strut. The city women look fine, but they can’t handle a hoe, and they crumple when they break a fingernail.

After some instructive moves by the rural women, the two groups get together to hoe and hammer in comradeship and all raise their arms in celebration.

The final dance, Cathedral of Rhythms, Optimism, and Perseverance, was a glorious concert of drumming, dancing, and leaping acrobatics that filled the stage and overflowed into the aisles. Pride and camaraderie, spiced with percussive attitude brought the evening to a rafter-rousing close.

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