writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Anemic Out of Africa

Out of Africa or Lucifer’s Daughter, A Dance Poem
Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
Thursday, March 26, 2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy
published April 19, 2004

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen’s memoir of her years in East Africa, is a tale about her love affair with highlands of the Ngong Mountain region near the vast Rift Valley, where the remains of Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithicus Afarensis skeleton, were found. Published in 1938 and written by the renowned Danish writer (born Karen Blixen), the story spans her 17 years running a coffee plantation, 6000 feet above sea level, where she had views of Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro in what is now Kenya. She began, she says, to write as a past time to quell her loneliness on the farm at night when the work was done, but as a Nobel prize nominee several times over, we know that her scribbling was much more than that.

Known for such beautifully crafted stories as Babette’s Feast, Dinesen is no ordinary memoirist. In a form that is often a banal catalogue, an apologia, or a settling of scores, Dinesen turns it into an elegant soliloquy about her resonant daily encounters with the diverse people, large animals, and vast and potent landscape of East Africa. Rather than narrowing as memoirs often do, her tale expands with all the hallmarks of a love without end, even when Africa seems to be closing itself off to her as she faces the economic failure of the farm during the world wide depression of 1929 into the 30’s, and her inevitable return to Europe. It is writing that makes the reader want to go to the highlands and know first hand the things Dinesen came to know, and to see the world with both her largeness and largesse. But one has to content oneself to be like a guest at her beautifully laid table, regaled by the stories Dinesen likely told her close friends when they came to visit. A writer of great dignity and large-spirited impersonality—she herself is her least interest—we never learn about her husband, her lover appears as only a dear friend, and we are ignorant of the ghosts haunting her, from the faithlessness of her syphilitic mate, to the memory of her father, and the harshness of life on a coffee plantation one is running alone.

Instead, she describes in detail and with great acuity what is really important to her: the interventions on the farm by Farah, her Somali manager, whom she relied on with an intimacy deeper than a lover's; the invasion of locusts that appear like a cloud of smoke in the sky to descend and eat every green thing in their path; the Masai coming to her to urge her to hunt down the lion killing off their animals, and the hunt that led her to kill a lion feasting on a dead giraffe, and dozens and dozens of stories more. She brings to it all the depth of fiction and the linear sweep of personal history, tied together by her bone-deep love of the African land and people.

The question then is: why would anyone choreograph a dance about such a memoir? And if they did, what would it look like? Certainly not anything like Flemming Flindt’s pageant he now calls Out of Africa, which first reared its head in 1992 as a gift to the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, as a wedding anniversary gift and titled, more aptly, Lucifer’s Daughter. Flindt recently refurbished Lucifer for San Jose Silicon Valley Ballet, injected some African dance, and presented it last month as a world premiere. It’s one of those dances that misses the writer the way a child’s lasso would fall short of a rampaging elephant.

Flindt’s first problem is in taking his title from the memoir: his approach in Out of Africa is as linear and literal-minded as Dinesen’s is impressionistic and impersonal, but also has nothing much to do with Africa. Out of Africa, A Dance Poem, is in reality a sentimental, almost hokey, autobiographical sketch of Dinesen and covers her life with chronological care, as one might find in an obituary in a literary magazine. It draws very little at all from her memoir, and includes her complex relationship with her father, who killed himself when she was 10, her husband’s unfaithfulness, her affairs, and her weird tie to the old devil syphilis, if not to the devil himself, none of which are ever mentioned in her African tale. But what Flindt has really designed, even after being refurbished, is a dance devised to celebrate nationality, pageant style, and through the artistry of three Danes to give other Danes a reflected boost to their collective ego. Flindt should have left it at that.

The music accompanying the ballet is by the renowned Danish composer Carl Nielsen, long dead despite the SJSVB’s program note saying he had been commissioned to create the score, and it is from Nielsen that Flindt took an array of choral, symphonic and chamber compositions which flood the dance with sweeping emotion and color. And then there’s Flindt himself, who became director of the Royal Danish Ballet in 1966, was made star of the Paris Opera Ballet, launched his own company in 1978, and took over as head of Dallas Ballet in 1981. Flindt, creator of The Lesson, The Overcoat, Phaedra, among other ballets, loves stories with dark cores and has made some brilliant work around them. Too bad he didn’t choose an enigmatic tale of Dinesen’s rather than the episodic narrative of her psychologically and geographically complex life.

Too bad, too, that he didn’t make a ballet about Africa or the central current that runs through Dinesen’s memoir: the encounter of an industrialized people with a preindustrial people, for whom Dinesen has a nearly religious sense of wonder and admiration, as they, it often seems, have for her. Flindt uses Africa as a source of dramatic contrast at the center of careful, meandering portrait of a cultivated woman who broke the bounds of Victorian Danish society. But he does it the way a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road flick threw in "native" dance as a bit of ethnic color. In the ballet, Dinesen’s servants don "native" garb and try to cheer the writer up with a dance supposedly indigenous to their culture, although there is little African about it. Before we know it we’ve got a whole village of "natives" on hand to dance around a bonfire! While it amounts to a cartoon, embarassing in its naivete, and borders on the offensive, even if it’s not badly choreographed, the company, especially Willie Anderson and Tiffany Glen, danced with such passionate commitment they saved the day.

Throughout Dinesen’s account of Africa, dance is referred to often, but she never saw any. Although she was unaware of the fact, the famous Ngomas at which the Kikuyu danced at particular times of the year based on the season were outlawed by the government. As Dinesen is preparing to leave Africa she writes: "At that time, it came to pass that the old men of the neighbourhood resolved to hold a Ngoma for me. These Ngomas of the Ancients had been great functions in the past, but now there were rarely danced, and during my time in Africa I have never seen one of them. I should have liked to have done so, for the Kikuyu themselves thought highly of them. It was considered an honour to the farm that the old men’s dance was to be performed there, my people talked of it a long time before it was to take place."

Nearly 100 old dancers appeared. Usually wrapped in furs, they came to the arm naked, some with black eagle feathers in big headdresses. They had chalk markings down their limbs and silently arrayed themselves for the dance, and then, with strange timing in a land of many strange happenings, an official from Nairobi appeared with a letter for Dinesen: the Ngoma was forbidden.

But Out of Africa has other problems. Flindt employed the large ensemble of San Jose State chorale singers to open and close the dance and dressed them in monk’s hooded robes straight out of Carmina Burana, carrying lighted globes that look borrowed from Lord of the Rings. The French and Scottish missions some distance from Dinesen’s African farm were important to Dinesen as posts of Europeanism, but not much more, and she regarded the missions’ desire to convert the Kikuyu as a form of colonial obtuseness. The chorus, which provided some much needed live music, would have seemed a lot less out of place had they been costumed in Edwardian clothes.

But more pertinent still is that despite the clear if anemically choreographed visual catalogue of Dinesen as a young girl (danced sweetly by Kathleen Dahlhoff), of her father (James Strong) who kills himself, Dinesen’s husband (Stephane Dalle) who flaunts his girlfriend, Dinesen’s lover (Alex Lapshin) who dies in a plane crash, Lucifer (Hao Bo) to whom she sold her soul; and despite the admirable dancing by Alexsandra Meijer as Dinesen, I left the theater at a loss to know how all these facts added up to the woman whose stories and memoirs are laden with enigma, indirection, and complex portraiture.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 14
April 19, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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