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Flash Dispatch, 6-4: Pourquoi?
Living in the real world with Salia ni Seydou

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

For the ghosts who cry still, and for Doug Wendt and the others who hear them.

PARIS -- It's amazing how easily some abandon conscience. The American Dance Festival is celebrating Israel less than six months after the atrocities it committed in Gaza; San Francisco Ballet just gave the Chinese government a PR boost by announcing, on the eve of today's 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre whose memory that government is trying to erase, that it will be touring China to celebrate the People's Republic's 60th anniversary. Contrast such callous complaisance with the engagement of Burkino Faso-based Seydou Boro and Salia Sanou's company Salia ni Seydou, as evinced in "Poussieres de sang," (Dust of blood) which opened Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, where it continues through Saturday.

I had grimaced when I first heard that these two artists, alumnae of Montpellier-based veteran Mathilde Monnier's company, would be offering an artistic response to the trans-continental blood-letting in Africa. I expected more of a tonic than an integral work of art, a creation driven more by moral message than dance method. The good news, then, is that "Poussieres de sang" is not the type of admirably motivated, socially and politically conscious spectacle which offers a narratively simplistic, artistically thin rendering of brutal reality so that we can all feel good. Sanou and Boro are genuinely trying to apply solid techniques -- they draw from many schools, indigenous and international -- and a strong command of stage dispersion, as well as a keen musicality in working with a live percussion, horn, vocal, and string ensemble in their response to their continent's violent tragedies.

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Compagnie Salia ni Seydou in Seydou Boro and Salia Sanou's "Poussieres de Sang." Photo by and ©Antoine Tempe, and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

What helps them is the virtuoso artistic level of all the personnel involved in the endeavor. I don't know what Djata Melissa Ilebou is saying, but the quavering in her a capella voice, which stops just short of melodrama, as she accompanies a duet of two bare-chested men which somehow softly portrays violent conflict, at an often slo-mo pace revealing the choreographers' exposure to Butoh, is both stirring and authentic. As is the way Ilebou sings directly to them, simultaneously regretting their loss and condemning their unending bloodletting.

The head-rolling in later ensemble passages for the three female and four male dancers, combined with chest undulating and dipping, all to heavy percussion, gets to be a little monotonous after a while, as does one person simply kicking another down with overt violence. I would also like to have seen more along the lines of the restrained small ensemble passages set against the downstage left wall which occasionally set off the action -- complete with, on one occasion, red shadows -- and also, for more narrative balance, more segments like the opening duet, which deceptively announces itself as a lyrical men's duet, but which in fact, in a contradictorily gentle tableau, conveys the timelessness of Africa's fratricides. I don't know that I've ever seen a gesture of violence so regretfully terminated as when one of the men lifts the other by the neck he's just been strangling onto his back and slowly carries him off. He may have won, but he's mourning the battle all the same. I would like to have seen more of the choreography reach the this level and, indeed, the overall artistically stirring level of the music, particularly that written, sung, and played (notably but not just on guitar) by Mamadou Kane, including a final lament on the guitar, "Pour quoi?"

(Reviewing Salia ni Seydou in 2003, my DI colleague Aimee Ts’ao commented, adroitly, "Although some of the ideas about communication and meaning in life were well expressed, the structure jumps back and forth between [traditional African and contemporary choreography] and doesn't develop in a smooth way." Six years later, the interface is a lot smoother.)

But I'm quibbling. What I love about Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro is that they're not just settling with providing a danced illustration of a political or social polemic to the already converted. They're better than that. Rather, they're *giving back.* Recognizing the opportunity and the obligation they have, not just in touring but with their Choreographic Development Center, opened in 2007 in Ouagadougou (click here to read Sarah Carlson's DI coverage), they're not just taking the easy route of reproducing Africa's various tragedies on stage. Rather, they're trying to apply their high level of physical and aesthetic training to the story of their immediate community. They may not be there yet (in my humble opinion) but what I love about them is that, as opposed to the American Dance Festival and San Francisco Ballet, which in cynical denial of a brutal reality lend their respected reputations to countries responsible for disreputable actions, as opposed to sticking their heads in the sand and holding their art aloof from reality on disingenuous premises, Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro are giving their minds to mindfulness.

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