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Flash Review 3, 2-20: Apocalypse Encore
Remembering Rwanda with Jant-Bi

By Alissa Cardone
Copyright 2004 Alissa Cardone

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NEWARK -- Eight powerful male dancers with chiseled bodies, unbelievable rhythm, dynamism, presence and fluidity make up Jant-Bi, which I was lucky enough to catch last Friday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in "Fagaala," a complex work about the Rwandan genocide. Created by Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny in collaboration with Japanese butoh choreographer Kota Yamazaki, "Fagaala," Wolof for "genocide," was inspired by Boubacar Boris Diop's novel "Murambi, le Livre des Ossements," a novelized account of the 1994 events in Rwanda.

The dancers' torsos ripple, their limbs contort, they jump high and hover low to speak, through vivid movements, of the tragedy which frames this project. Relentless in versatility, they dive deep into states of joy and rage, channeling both human and animal, masculine and feminine as they seethe under white fabrics like centipedes or prance extreme caricatures of the over-sexed. Fleeting moments of brotherhood, shown through exuberant sequences of traditional African dance, are ripped apart by sudden shifts of lighting, sound or character that evoke the imminence of intrusion. The scale is tipped to the grotesque swiftly and nightmarishly; a figure sets himself apart from the group, pumping his fist down his pants like a piston; he strips down to briefs and thrusts his hips in blind rage, moaning in a disturbing ecstasy as he channels the bestiality of rape. According to the program notes, Acogny wanted this work to both whisper and shout the tragedy of genocide. But with her dancers, vessels for ghosts to return and tell a story of a darker side of humankind, even the quiet moments cannot shake the possibility of terror, a foreboding aided by Maciej Fiszer's stage set, which includes projecting lightning flashes in a hazy primordial fog on the back scrim.

Making works of art based on severe and tragic events can be a risk. How can you capture the horror without turning off your audience, how can you allow an audience to absorb the enormity of tragedy but also take something away that penetrates deeply to a hopefulness, a healing, a small call to act against such crimes in one's own world? Jant-Bi's response lies with its dancers, Babacar Ba, Cire Beye, Abdoulaye Kane, Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, Alioune Ndiaye, Ousmane Bane Ndiaye, Tchebe Saky and Abib Sow, who are highly individual but work together with a kind of solidarity not often seen. Despite the tragic theme, the vibrations of the performers' bodies, the force and commitment which they bring to every rhythm and jump produce an invigorating energy.

Collaboration was the more tricky issue for me in this work. At times the transition from traditional to contemporary African dance movements or from African to butoh styles is smooth and at others the move from one style to another seems to lessen the impact of the choreography, blurring the trajectory of the piece as a whole. The work isn't quite distilled. The highly symbolic motifs that characterize Yamazaki's butoh-inspired aesthetic make striking although awkward appearances. At one point a dancer comes out holding two red flaps that resemble wings or tear drops; entering on a diagonal, he walks slowly a few steps and then backs up and exits. Such weighted images confused me. However, there is an overall back and forth between abrasive sections and more quiet, internally drawn ones that did allow the audience space to attempt to process the intensity of "Fagaala"'s context. By far the most interesting points are when the two styles of the choreographers melt into each other, their sensibilities seeming to truly marry in the movement and artistry of the dancers, who are at once both vitally open and deeply restrained.

Set designer Maciej Fiszer hung gossamer fabric drapes in long narrow sections that bordered the back and one side of the stage. The lightness of the cloth, which moves on its own, catching wind and air from the dancers, adds to the ghost imagery which appears throughout the piece and deepens one's sense that other spirits besides those of the dancers are present on stage. Fabrice Bouillon-Laforest creates a stunning and transforming collage of music which supports the dance beautifully, at times propelling, counterpointing, making what seems innocent hint of danger.

There was a little girl sitting behind me in the theatre who kept nudging her mother, announcing the time in a loud whisper: "It's eight o'clock," "It's eight thirty," "Mom, it's ten minutes to nine." I wondered how much time is enough time to give to a dance which takes its theme from genocide? How much time is enough time to remember things we don't want to remember? How much may be too much for us to remember?

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