writers on dancing


Dancing About Genocide

Compagnie Jant-Bi
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
October 7, 2005

by Rita Felciano
copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano  

The San Francisco premiere of “Fagaala” (“Genocide”), the Senegalese Compagnie Jant-Bi’s extraordinary meditation on violence took many in its audience by surprise. Choreographed in a style that incorporated traditional African dance with Bhuto and other more contemporary vocabularies, the work was born after its choreographer Germaine Acogny’s encounter with a fictionalized account of the genocide in Rwanda, “Murambi, le livre des ossements” (“the Book of Bones”). As they popped up, the work’s most familiar elements—African style dances with their multi-rhythmic attacks, syncopations between upper and lower body and interplaying isolations—received lusty cheers. It was but slowly that the recognition seeped in that these dancers did not celebrate community, the joyous expression of togetherness that we are use to see in African dance. The steps may have looked familiar, but the energy that generated them was altogether different. These were dances of lashing out, of a desperation induced by irrational forces over which its practitioners seemed to have little control. These people were dancing about madness, about pain, about isolation—not community.

If “Fagaala” would have done nothing else than to make us realize that a good choreographer can take familiar material and subvert established interpretations, it would have been worthwhile doing. But, of course, “Fagaala” did more than that.

The work had nothing to do with the specifics of the horrors in Rwanda. It had everything to do with that sea of violence, hatred and potential for destruction that boils way down inside all of us. Not acknowledging its presence is the surest way to insanity, psychologists tell us. The very fact that genocides have happened in history all over the world, and probably will occur again, should be additional proof enough of the point that Acogny  and her co-choreographer, Butoh-trained Kota Yamazaki, are trying to make. Yet the beauty of “Fagaala” is that it makes its point without finger-pointing or political posturing. It merely opens up a perspective on human nature. And it does so, using its material in a theatrically convincing manner.

The piece starts out on a mysterious and slow—maybe too slow—note, though much enhanced by Horst Muhlberger’s lighting that suggests frozen lightening bolts against a background of suspended panels. A block of men walk, sit, lie and sing together. They also stoically watch while another one writhes upstage. The musical score (Fabrice Bouillon-Laforest and Jean-Yves Gratius) is a mix of traditional African, Western instrumental and sound effects; its disparate elements quite successfully co-existing side by side. Costumes (Oumou Sy), after the shedding of everyday clothes, were flowing robes and pants in primary colors: red (for blood?) and white (for death?).

“Fagaala” throws incident after incident onto the stage, at first almost haphazardly. They accumulate into a not very pretty picture. A man trembles all over. Another slowly slithers across upstage, barely visible between the panels. Yet another gesticulates wildly and is bandaged by a dancer who gets bound up in the same piece of cloth. They stand like statues. As the frenzy builds one tall dancer in the middle of it never moves. One dancer crawls on all four while another puts a huge rock on his back and leaps on top of it. A trio seems caught in a dream, trying out tentative steps. Dancers often pull their T-shirt over their heads as if unwilling to watch what is going on and also, of course, hiding themselves from each other and us.

A key figure is a technically spectacular dancer who shows off quite directly to us, with incredibly fast footwork and huge leaps. Grinning, he looks like a good natured village fool except that his actions look more like someone who has gone berserk. He wends his way through the piece like an unspooling thread. At one point he jumps and fletches his teeth like a gorilla, playing with the stereotypical idea of the savage. He throws it as us like a challenge.

Some of the images are extraordinarily visceral. There are suggestions of humping, rape, masturbation, voyeurism and childbirth. One man drops his pants and eventually crawls half-way into the wings. Writhing he calls out. To no effect. Towards the end another dancer downstage left crouches for the longest time over a pool of “blood”. He could be menstruating or defecating.

Acogny’s view of her men is remarkably untypical. These dancers incorporate a luscious sensuality—besides performing such specifically female gestures as rolling hips, giving birth, cradling and menstruating—that men are rarely allowed to display on stage.

Trying to capture “Fagalaa’s” kinetic images in language, of course, pins them down more literally than when they are seen in the piece. Despite their occasional rawness, rather than evoking a sense of disgust or revulsion, they suggest desolation, a barrenness of soul and with it a recognition of an essential truth about the human species. It’s what good theater is supposed to do.

“Fagaala” does have a few miscalculations. Several times a tent-like figure slowly made its way into the stage space, amorphous, non-specific. Since it was white—white being the color of mourning in many African cultures—it might well have had a connotation of death, but as a kinetic image it wasn’t on the level of the rest of the work. Running across the stage with trailing banners also was pretty meaningless.

The most clearly Bhuto-influenced sequence occurs in a quintet in which three dancers slowly roll themselves into shrouds. They are tied to a red thread that spills like blood out of the mouths of two figures standing over them. Another Bhuto-contribution shows up in the final iconic figure of a man covered in whites ashes. Shaking himself repeatedly releases a cloud. Acogny has said that the image was influenced by ones seen after 9/11. To her it represents resurrection, life coming out of death. It didn’t strike me that way. It came too much out of nowhere.

Someone once said that the artist is the antenna of the race. “Fagaala” suggests that there is a—however uncomfortable—truth to that.

Volume 3, No. 37
October 10, 2005
copyright ©2005 Rita Felciano



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last updated on October 10, 2005