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Flash Review 1, 3-10: Money for Something
'Mandinka' in Michigan

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

ANN ARBOR, Michigan--For a brief moment during the curtain call of Les Ballet d'Afrique Noire Thursday at the University of Michigan, I thought I was at a rock concert. That's because I have never seen an audience love a dance performance as much as this Ann Arbor audience loved "The Mandinka Epic," presented by the University Musical Society. I've never seen so many people run down to the front of the stage to get closer to the musicians (and I am not talking just college students here), I've never heard them scream so loud, I have never seen them clap so long (in America at least), and finally, I have never ever seen audience members throw crumpled up $1 and $5 and $10 bills onto the stage as the drummers played their encore. But, luckily, there is a first time for everything.

Les Ballet d'Afrique Noire is based in Dakar, Senegal, where the company was established in 1958. Most of the dancers who performed last night were from the company's school and studio, which trains over 150 dancers a year. But to call them "dancers" is actually to sell these performers short. They certainly could and did dance, but "The Mandinka Epic" is exactly what the title promises: a full-evening epic, which includes pantomime, opera, dance, drumming, and acrobatics--sometimes all at once. Choreography by Oscar Aboucar Camara, Jean Pierre Leurs, and Mamdou Diop is complimented by brilliantly colorful costumes and lighting, to create a production that would be a spectacle if the dancers merely strolled across the stage chewing gum. But it's better than that because the dancing is both technically outstanding and physically exhausting. The most memorable scenes are those in which the performers dance while playing instruments and singing at the same time. One movement of this kind included five men and five women, all moving and playing with perfect precision speed, none losing their individuality, both drumsticks and drums effectively a part of the dance.

I was also moved by a childbirth scene, which illustrated the production's excellent staging, pacing, and integration of drama and humor into the story. I am surprised that pregnant women in the audience didn't go into labor just from watching the dancers as they mimicked the rhythms and pains of childbirth. Another crowd-pleaser was a dancer on ten foot stilts. His role in the story was somewhat unclear (he was performing at a celebration), but you couldn't really dislike it for all the stuntiness of it. It seems to me that many dance companies today use gimmicks and try to pass them off as some kind of knowing, ironic spirit. Here it was simply a part of the show, performed with an honest, take-it-or-leave-it passion, from start to finish. And the man did things with stilts I have never seen before. If I didn't know there is no such thing as a twenty foot tall man I might have been fooled.

"The Mandinka Epic" tells the story of the Mali Empire, led by the Mandinka people, which reached the height of its power in the 13th to 15th centuries. The songs in the production are sung in the Mandinka language in various dialects, and the program explains that extensive research went into reproducing costumes, songs, and ritual dances from the period. However, the production does raise some complex political issues in its depiction of African history. There is no reliable scholarship on Africa which would uphold the story-line in the production's second act, which depicts King Abukar II landing on the shores of the American new world in the early 14th century, although there is, according to one Oxford historian of Afrocentrism, "weak evidence that two large fleets of ships set sail from the Malian Empire, during the reign of Abukar II in the early fourteenth century, sailed westward, and never returned." Even less likely seemed the prospect of King Abukar and a native South American hugging in brotherly spirit during their first encounter. But can weak history be good politics? That's a debate for another time and place.... but I will say that the liberties taken are certainly no greater than those in any 19th century ballet, which are all filled with happy, nationalized peasants (or in every historical movie ever produced). So perhaps the question should simply be: "Can weak history be good art?" I am certainly convinced that it can.

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