A talking drum: Les Ballets Africains.
Revolution in Dance
By Mae G. Banner
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.