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Flash Review Journal, 9-26: Synthesis
The Other Way from Khan, Quasar, and Salia ni Seydou

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last week at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, the San Francisco International Arts Festival offered no less than three dance companies whose roots are non-Western, non-Euro-centric but that also incorporate modern or contemporary Western forms. Originally I was slated to review Akram Khan Company, but in light of the context of the Festival it seemed more appropriate to discuss the issue of multi-culturalism and the synthesis of traditional and contemporary art forms.

With no time in-between to digest what I had seen, I could only gain some perspective after seeing all three troupes back to back: the Brazilian Quasar Dance Company on Wednesday, the London-based Indian Kathak-derived Akram Khan Company on Thursday, and on Friday, Compagnie Salia ni Seydou from Burkina Faso in West Africa. The most interesting point that they have in common is that the choreographers all seem to want to create new forms which express their individual experiences -- they do not want to be viewed simply as having taken traditional forms and allowed them to be influenced by European and American modern dance, but to find new languages, new means of forging a rapport with their audiences, both the audiences of their countries of origin and those of other cultures.

For over a century Western dance has flirted with the exoticism of Asian, Middle Eastern and European folk dances. From the classical ballets -- "Nutcracker," "Swan Lake," and "La Bayadere," for example -- to Ruth St. Denis, these forms have been constantly appropriated. Even today, choreographers such as Ronald K. Brown, often basing his steps on African dance instead of ballet or modern dance, and Mark Morris, in pieces as diverse as "Kolam," which employed Indian hands and heads, to the solo "Serenade," which used Flamenco, are still mining that vein. The question is what makes these successful? And do we judge the results from the process going from the traditional to the contemporary with the same parameters? Ultimately, the answer is that the work regardless of the origin or the influences must engage the audience.

Akram Khan's "Kaash" (Hindu for "if") is an evening-length (if just under an hour qualifies as an entire evening) piece for five dancers. Ironically, the material in the press kit describes a long, complex creation employing ideas about Hindu mythology, physics, war, destruction and regeneration, only to have the choreographer say about another piece, "Fix," that "they [the audience] are free...to have a view on it, whatever it may be." I am impressed by the speed and clarity of the dancers' execution and by the development of the choreography, going from simple unison to a canon form and then introducing variations on the theme. However, I find it all a little too neatly laid out and lacking in human feeling. There is not enough material to stretch out over the hour. Both the music by Nitin Sawhney and set design by Anish Kapoor are very well done and add immensely to the aesthetic sense of the dance.

"Lend Me Your Eyes" (Empresta-me Teus Olhos) by Quasar Dance Company's artistic director, Henrique Rodovalho, is an engaging piece utilizing video projections. Though a bit too long, it's contrasting sections of extremely athletic dance, with a lot of capoeira-based movements, and the slower, more tender ending, are very moving. The dancers are outstanding, whether throwing themselves to the floor or at each other or wandering amid the video screens. Despite some minor technical difficulties, I found this to be the most compelling of the three companies.

Compagnie Salia ni Seydou's strong points are the dancers and musicians. What a joy to watch Seydou Boro, Ousseni Sako and Salia Sanou undulate their torsos, ripple their muscular arms and slash the air with their intense energy, to the music of percussionist Dramane Diabate and flutist Irisso Tao. "Figninto" (The Blind Eye) by Boro, assisted by Sanou, contains both traditional African dance and contemporary choreography. Although some of the ideas about communication and meaning in life were well expressed, the structure jumps back and forth between the two forms and doesn't develop in a smooth way.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see these three companies from such diverse places performing pieces in such different styles and yet sensing that they all are grappling with the same issues of living in this world and seeking, if not answers, at least new ways of looking at the problems. Hopefully the San Francisco International Arts Festival will continue to present more dance companies from all over the world, each with its unique voice.

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