Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Dance En Creation
SF International Arts Festival
Program II
Robert Moses’ Kin
Compagnie Li-Sangha
Mhaise Productions
May 26, 2007

It was 9:30 pm on a Saturday. After finding a seat at Dance Mission for the late performance in the final days of the SF International Music and Dance Festival, I flipped through the program. I turned the pages this way, and then turned them back. I repeated the action in reverse, then started all over again. I looked at Iris’ booklet, thinking my program had fallen out, or that I was handed the wrong set of papers. But, no, we seemed to have the same thing--a cover with inserts for each of the three different companies about to perform. With nothing else to do, I poured through the background information, and buried in each page I found the key--the names of the dances to come.

I admit I would have preferred a concise road map of the performance with dance names and the list of dancers in the order in which they appeared. That’s what I’m used to and what I have come to expect. And while I urge the organizers to improve their programs next year (especially to jettison the mission statements that cluttered the press packet), as I was driving back to the East Bay over a freeway span miraculously rebuilt in mere weeks, I saw that there was something noteworthy in the fact that my expectations--or to be even more precise, my presumptions--had been challenged by this small matter.

We in the West can get pretty uppity about how things should be. Pretty soon we start levitating above people who do it differently or for whom the world happens to work in another way. In a festival dedicated to the African Diaspora, the matter of the hard-to-find program line-up became a symbol of how so many of us automatically assume the world should function--efficiently and with consummate linearity. Often implicit in such expectations is the naive as well as arrogant belief that these values represent the highest good. We trust that others around the globe (or even at home) agree with them (even if these same people don’t know they agree). If their ideas truly differ we may decide there’s something wrong with them, and, in the worst case, they become our enemy. That may mean we need to start a campaign against them--enemies being dangerous--and possibly invade and thereby liberate them from their benightedness. This is the childish but deadly logic of imperial power. And it can manifest itself over small things as well as large.

Driving home along that stretch of freeway, which circles above the sewage plant, I noted how happy I was to have a sutured road and a functioning sewage plant: I’m not one to scorn modern engineering. But I’m not one to ignore the role of scientific breakthroughs, like the compass, in the rise of colonialism, either, or the microchip in the current plunder of the Democratic Republic of Congo for coltan, a by-product of columbite tantalite. This is a mineral that, refined, turns into $100 a pound heat-resistant powder vital for cell phones, VCRs and computer chips. These thoughts led me to contemplate how no continent has suffered as Africa has suffered from the arrogance, racism and greed of empires or empire wannabes, whether Portuguese, French, British, Dutch, Italian, Belgian, U.S., Soviet or Chinese, while benefiting so little from modern technological advances, modern infrastructure and modern democracy.

This line of thinking wasn’t on the night’s agenda exactly, but the ghosts of 600 years of colonialism haunted the theater in an evening of often beautiful and sometimes chilling dance. The spirits were violently and explicitly present in the intensely physical work by Compagnie Li-Sangha in a dance entitled “Mona-Mambu,” where the quixotic, vicious life in Congo-Brazzaville was embodied as shards that seemed ready at almost every instant to fragment into perilous chaos. In keen contrast, the South African duo Mhayise performed a mythopoetic duet about initiation in the midst of what seemed like the conquest of the Transvaal by European settlers--figures implied by the sound of galloping horse hooves and the neighing of animals as they reared. This pair quietly evoked the power of life cycles to adapt and persist amid the destructive forces of history.

While the myriad faces of Africa (a multiethnic world as layered and complex as our own) were richly captured by the two troupes, Robert Moses' new untitled work gave us a view of the Diaspora in the New World. Full of depth and quiet, melancholic beauty, Moses’ composition sifted African dance steps and Indonesian lunges through his modern movement vocabulary. The result was a thoughtfully recombined and deeply contemporary vision of our own multiethnic reality.

Li-Sangha put together a perfect storm of elements: humor, competitiveness, sexuality, sorrow, play and explosive fury in a posse of young men. Their performance incorporated various languages, multiple dance styles and different approaches to politics, from the ballot box to internecine warfare to pack behavior that slipped from light-hearted to deadly and back. If you’ve seen contemporary crafts coming out of Africa, ingeniously created from junk like bottle caps and old flip flops, you’ve found artifacts that ply time-honored craft with post-industrial detritus. It’s that reinvention of old world amid the new--and the provisional character of reinventing from so little--that Li-Sangha evoked in their dance.

French language dominated the piece, interspersed with an African language I couldn’t name. Death lurked in the shadows, around the bend, even threatened metaphorically in the ballot box. Bach was juxtaposed with a joyous Congolese rendition of Catholic prayer, which ran up against the sounds of a Pygmy jaw harp. The Bible was contrasted to the Koran, drum percussion to the percussive battery of machine gun fire. The Congo, the troupe was telling us, is a land of tense, even irreconcilable oppositions. Tension was broken with humor and then retightened by uncertainty, whether in “shootings” that proved to be horseplay, which, ultimately, may or may not have been deadly, or an ominous ballot box that contained, in the end, not ballots but beer. This relieved anxiety on the one hand but heightened it as the hope of democracy shattered.

The physical language had the same crazy-quilt and paradoxical charge, brazenly athletic one moment (threatening or merely dynamic?) and ritualized the next; intensely modern, yet rooted in a deeply African understanding of the expressive body as an instrument to be played from crown of the head to flat of the foot. As a group, Li-Sangha also conjured up the legions of bright, bored and mischievous youth in any modern city, with the difference that these guys find themselves suddenly thrust into the anarchy of warfare. They made us feel the tenuousness that haunts ravaged and underdeveloped countries as no dance has communicated to me before. They also physicalized the unconquerable nature of the human spirit, which has almost as much need for laughter and invention as for food. According to the program notes, choreographer Orchy Nzaba named the piece for a Congolese expression that means the ability to see reality with clear-sightedness. It was an apt name.

Mhayise Production’s “Umthombi,” meaning “male adolescent,” approached the afflictions of colonialism with a timelessness and ritualized beauty, along with an adept use of silence, that reminded me of butoh’s response to the abomination of the A-bomb. Choreographer Musa Hlatshwayo, tall and elegant, danced beside the small, boyish Ngceba Nzama, an 11th grader from Durban, who attends the Sivanada Technical High School in KwaMashu. From the sounds of an owl, water and a distant drum to the clouds of flour that filled the air toward the end of the work, “Umthombi” honored life’s cycles. Colonialism existed as an unseen force, as cruel and impersonal as drought, or blight, and, as such, part of the existential challenge of a people to endure, outsmart and overcome their conditions.

Hlatshwayo, the initiator and elder, was dressed in ceremonial, rustic fashion, while Nzama was outfitted in shorts and a one-shouldered shirt reminiscent of the Prodigal Son but also contemporary. The older man led the way with calm, even detached wisdom, while the frightened younger man, in a mix of initiatory fear and situational terror, mirrored the older dancer in jerky, unraveling spurts, like someone jumping out of his skin or attempting to disappear. Yet transformation for the young man was underway, and this was apparent through a sense of journeying propelled by a large, even mysterious, purpose. Physically we saw the initiatory process take place as Nzama’s hand grew progressively more expressive and his arms became eloquent and wing-like, like a molting bird.

Moses has a great gift for shaping space with elegance and subtlety, and here he combined that with his sophisticated approach to music; the music served both as a map for the dance and as counterpoint to the dance’s internal rhythms. The effect, with shadows lancing the stage space, dancers performing West African steps of gathering or cleansing with an air of remembering, was to create a quiet pensée on the Diaspora. Full of ancestral echoes, the movement was not denatured but reimagined. As in Moses' very best work, it signaled a wistful belief in the transubstantiation of historic pain and sorrow into living beauty.

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