March 12, 2009

Dancing the Diaspora

Print More

Duna, the title of the dance concert presented on Tuesday night at the Schwartz Center by Kongo Ba Teria and Barker & Tarpanga Dance Project, means “foreigner” in one of the native languages of Burkina Faso, where all four of the male dancer/musicians in the troupe originally hail from. The group’s dance style is a deliberately hybridized form that appropriates traditional West African dance movements into the decidedly Western context of modern dance.
Yet, because of the African diaspora, Western audiences are already familiar with “contaminated” forms of West African dance and music that inform everything from hip-hop and breakdancing to blues and Disney’s The Lion King. The group is in the perilous position, then, of either seeming more “authentically” West African (even though the lead choreographer, Olivier Tarpaga, teaches at UCLA, for example) or seeming like yet another bastardized version of West African dance that offers little that is innovative or unsettling.
The first act was a solo performance by Lacina Coulibaly that began on a soundless, bare stage. Held in a trance-like meditation, he fingered prayer beads while his lower half contorted with bent legs, kicking back in quick arabesques, pivots and sashays. One particularly startling moment occurred when Coulibaly crossed his heels, then fell, turning around with a springy agility into his next movement. Once he abandoned his prayer beads, blues music came on as he turned his African smock inside out to reveal that it was, in fact, a white trenchcoat. This inversion successfully displayed how what we misrecognized as traditionally African garb had already been co-opted by Western designs. Yet, as he invaginated the trenchcoat, he became sheathed in a distinctly African-American persona of the cool hoochie-coochie bluesman.
He then revolved through a series of quaking, fidgety motions executed with a robotic swiftness, finally smoothing them out. From this he spun around in a dervish, lashing out at the end with two fingers upraised, which I at first mistook for his middle finger. Instead, it was (disappointingly) only his pointer fingers, which he then tried to touch together. Failing to connect them, his fingers collapsed into his heart and torso. This overtly — and perhaps overly — narrative section was accompanied by a muzak-y techno synth soundscape with a jazz sax. The act ended with the dancer collapsing and quickly re-ascending with upraised, outspread arms, gesturing that no matter how many times he might fall, he would rise again.
The second act started with four men walking about in the dark carrying lanterns. When the lights came on, the men stood in a line playing a game of telephone, with a message which caused the last one to burst out laughing the first time and caused him to cast a raised eyebrow the second time. Two of the dancers then took up traditional African instruments, such as calabash shells and a string instrument similar to the kora. The other two dancers, Coulibaly and Olivier Tarpaga, continued in a duet. Eventually, one man held his hands over his eyes, carried by the other one on his shoulders; when the one on top slid off, he covered the bottom man’s eyes. At the end of this duet, we were reminded of the interchangeable role of the musicians as dancers, as a dancer rushes up to the calabash player in a threatening stare-down.
The dancers became trapped in the space defined by the lights and the lanterns. The feeling of entrapment was also shown through the dancers locking together like wrestlers. As the brutality escalated, all four men crisscrossed the stage, wildly gesticulating while a voiceover played airport instructions and jet engine sounds. When we heard sirens, the men scattered, one running to the edge of the wings where he flew into the other’s arms. For another sequence, the two main dancers lay on the ground, lifting their bodies as if a string were connected to their navels. They then lept off the floor like grasshoppers, twitching and flailing, and the audience was not sure if they were possessed by or exorcising demons. Another set piece had the men in a dance circle, wherein each dancer demonstrated a small flashy solo, a scene perhaps made overly familiar from our experience of dance clubs. The dance ended with the performers facing the audience speaking in their native tongue, their voices getting louder by gradations until it seemed that they were arguing with either us or themselves. Yet, because we didn’t understand their words, we didn’t feel accused and interrogated; both sides of the argument were unfortunately silenced.
Whereas the piece indicated aspirations to engage with the uncanny process of finding the homelike in the foreign as well as the foreign in oneself, the affect of the dance was far too comforting and complicit with its audience’s expectations for a palliative, “multicultural” experience. As a counterexample of a work that refuses to inoculate its audience, implicating both its audience and itself, one could view Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which depicts the violent side-effects unleashed in the African American community resulting from a televised minstrel show.
While Duna is not a minstrel show per se, I felt that the audience was in danger of a self-congratulatory false sympathy toward the apparently happier yet more “primitive” performers. The dance never fully engaged with issues such as the violence of the post-colonial situation or the “orientalizing” of indigenous cultures. Instead, it portrayed dance as an escapist and exotic media — the dancers exulted in movement in order to forget their troubles; we go to watch dance to see beautiful bodies move in ways that we ourselves cannot.
Formally, whenever the concert encroached upon moments of genuine menace, the dancers would explode in a series of brilliantly acrobatic spins, leaps and arm gestures, which covered the political content in an aesthetic veneer to the point of nullifying it. In short, the dancing was too beautiful and virtuosic to disturb us in the way that its narrative of war and displacement suggests it should. I am not suggesting that all dance must be engagé, only that work which purports to take on issues of the fractures that exists in cultural negotiations should do more to alienate its audience in order to represent the experience of alterity, rather than leave them feeling so agreeably at home. Of course, my own expectations that culturally hybridized dance should foreground its political motives through certain formal moves of distanciation may be a residue of my own Westernized biases.