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Letter from Burgundy, 2-15: Out of Africa, not out of the 'African Dance' Ghetto
Bienvenue to the Francophone Scene

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2008 Marisa C. Hayes

LE CREUSOT (Saone et Loire), France -- As part of its second annual Francophone series, L'ARC Scene Nationale presented a contemporary West African choreographers platform January 19. Well, sort of....

The event was billed as "a day dedicated to the vitality of African choreographers." So imagine my surprise when the curtain opened to reveal Xavier Lot's "Welcome to Bienvenue." Lot is an established French choreographer with no real visible ties to West Africa unless, like most of his countrymen, he has visited the former French colonies on vacation. While he did conceive the piece as a solo for a dancer from Burkina Faso, its inclusion in the program was confusing. With so few opportunities to see examples of contemporary West African choreography, and only three slots on the entire program, surely an additional choreographer from the 17 countries that make up West Africa was available. According to Joan D. Frosch, director of the new dance documentary, "Movement (R)evolution Africa," the African continent as a whole (with particular emphasis on its Western regions) is home to an active contemporary dance scene, struggling but vibrant. If the dynamic pre-performance discussion is any indication, there are a lot of up-and-coming West African choreographers whose work sounds varied and intriguing, making it all the more regrettable that audiences didn't get a better chance to sample them on this program.

Notwithstanding its questionable presence at an African choreography platform, "Welcome to Bienvenue" is 40 minutes of quality dance. It begins with small lamps that descend from the ceiling, hung on loose cords in neat rows of five. Dancer Bienvenue Bazie enters and completes various actions with the lights: sometimes illuminating them, sometimes swinging their cords so that the lamps themselves dance of their own accord. Bazie's tall, muscular frame first works its way through a long series of intricate floor postures before undergoing a set of contemplative standing sequences. With his back painted in white numbers and letters representing his French visa application -- a difficult process that took six months to complete in real life -- he finishes the dance by slowly rubbing against the floor, undulating and articulating his shoulders and back until the paint eventually wears off and is spread across the black stage in large smears. This is the most memorable section of "Welcome to Bienvenue," and not as contrived as it sounds. The sequence in question is without climax, and as a result, avoids becoming excessive. Instead, the piece sustains an ambient pulse. It's never really clear when the paint has been removed or if it's ever completely wiped away. Certain aspects of the performance could easily lead to a literal discussion of immigration policies and ethnic identity in France (certainly hot topics in the country today), but more than that, "Welcome to Bienvenue" retains an abstract sense of journey, as if the audience were privy to a personal tour of the dancer's interior landscape.

"Impro-Vise 2" followed suit, choreographed and performed by Andreya Ouamba (Republic of the Congo) and Fatou Cisse (Senegal). Inspired by their experience with street children in Dakar, the Senegalese capitol where both young dancers are based, the pair used themes of displacement, sense of space and physical violence as starting points to develop an improvisational practice that evolved into the structured and abstract work performed here. The only clear references to street children are the opening music sung by Richard Bona -- afterwards silence and ambient soundscapes accompany the choreography -- and a sculpted pile of discarded newspapers from which the dancers initially emerge that remains softly lit in the corner. Ouamba and Cisse possess a strong knowledge of how to use the stage as a vast territory. In "Impro-Vise 2" the dancers work with a variety of impressive directional changes and spatial configurations, while exploring underused areas of the traditional stage such as the extreme rear proscenium and places where their bodies remain partially concealed in the wings. Using a handful of movement influences, from a startling Butoh-like moment that leaves Ouamba hovering center stage, to a more athletic physicality, the two dancers are decidedly contemporary, without a trace of the folkloric ritual that so often defines the way we envision African dance. Ouamba even laughingly admitted during the pre-performance discussion that his earliest dance training came from watching Michael Jackson. He relayed how most children and teenagers in West Africa today aren't interested in traditional dance and music, creating a strong generational divide in the population. This simple observation is important, not in order to discourage preservation of folkloric traditions in Africa, but because the household stereotype of African artists as "ancient guardians of tradition" undermines the work that choreographers like Ouamba and Cisse are doing today to share their lives in a contemporary context.

The rift in age and attitude became readily apparent during the third and final performance of the night, "Le Sacre du Tempo." Mid-career choreographer Irene Tassembedo is a native of Burkina Faso, but currently works in Paris while retaining strong ties with her native country and working frequently in neighboring West African regions. She was recently introduced to American audiences through her work with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. Tassembedo developed "Le Sacre du Tempo" in relation to attitudes about mental balance and instability after the subsequent deaths of her mother and brother within a short time period. She relies heavily on traditional Burkinabe motifs -- both visual and choreographic -- to examine the rituals of trance as a source for finding one's equilibrium. In a recent interview with "Journal de L'ARC," she cited tradition as the essence of her identity and as her constant source of inspiration. Live drumming and polycentric movements with intensive use of the shoulders and upper back characterize the prominent features of West African folk dance, and Tassembedo doesn't depart much from these traits except to use the floor from time to time. Her contemporary approach lies not in the movement itself, but in its application to modern situations that fall outside the traditional purpose of long established ceremonies. Tassembedo also employs a multi-cultural cast of dancers, emphasizing that her work is not simply "African." Unfortunately, in this performance, her global endeavor took on the mishmash qualities of a world fusion CD. Sangeeta Isvaran, a classically trained Indian dancer, was clad in the vibrant silk garments and ankle bells of the Bharatanatyam dance style. Her skill was readily apparent, but her relevance to the show was entirely unclear. For over an hour, the cast of seven (including Isvaran, five African dancers and one Franco-Italian) rotated, appearing in pairs, short solos, or as an ensemble, recycling their respective movement vocabularies at length. Aside from an opening scene during which the dancers approached a small ritual table, there was little structure to "Le Sacre du Tempo." Its physically rigorous choreography, however, was admirably performed by an able cast of dancers.

Judging by the increasingly strong African presence at important venues in France like the Montpellier Dance Festival, there are numerous other West African choreographers of the same caliber as Andreya Ouamba and Fatou Cisse. Next time, I hope to see them presented for their own artistic merits and not just as part of an African diaspora event. We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the contemporary voices of a vast and ethnically diverse continent (yes, remember Africa IS a continent NOT a country) of which we have far too little exposure outside media coverage of an ill-fated humanity torn apart by poverty and political instability (now more than ever with recent crises in Chad and Kenya added to that of Darfur). Choreographers like Ouamba, Cisse, and even Tassembedo refute any assigned third world identity, claiming their rightful place on stage as contemporary artists.

Marisa C. Hayes narrowly missed being dismissed from her first ballet class at the age of six when she announced, "I can jump like Baryshnikov!," ran to the center of the studio and attempted to execute her best grand jeté. Marisa has since avoided further catastrophic events in the studio and even managed to obtain a degree in contemporary dance and video/film studies from Goddard College (Vermont) and Virginia Commonwealth University. She also studied Butoh in Japan with Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno. Marisa primarily creates dance for the screen. Two of her video-dance films were recently selected for Japan's International Dance Film Festival and the Moscow Video Festival. This year she received grants and awards from Arts Link New York, the New York Theatre Communications Group and the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust. Marisa also teaches improvisational dance to adults with disabilities. She is currently completing a screen-dance installation for the National Theatre in Burgundy, France where she lives and co-creates with her husband and a small army of rescue cats.

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