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'Moving Africa' at the Barbican Theatre

Modern Africa Moves at the Barbican

'Vincent Mantsoe ‘Barena (Chiefs)’, Company Rary 'Mpirahalahy Mianala (Several Form One)', Salia nï Seydou ‘Figninto (The Torn Eye)’

By Thea Nerissa Barnes

January 2004 -- Barbican Theatre, London

Image: Vincent Mantsoe - "Barena (Chiefs)"
photo by John Hogg

“Moving Africa” is testimony, at least by virtue of these artists, that Africanist dance expressions are definitely not homogenous and include Europeanist modern/post-modernist inclinations. Previous experiences or preconceived notions of what dance from Africa is thought to be disperse before these eloquent dance expressions that are not theatricalised presentations of culturally specific, scared or secular rituals, or renditions of the lived experience of the noble savage, or peregrinations of the elegant survivor of denigrating circumstances. Each of the “Moving Africa” works had an individual mode of vibrancy and imagery that did not just vivify a specific cultural identity; each work was a distinct entity of dance making, derivative of intra- and inter-cultural experiences. One can note that these expressions originated within the African Diaspora but they also exhibited alternative dance making traits found outside expected Africanist aesthetics. On this occasion the proscenium arch was a mysterious, multi-world place where each work provided its own devised aesthetic for the spectator to experience.

For Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe who presented “Barena (Chiefs)”, the performance space is a scared, spiritual landscape where the interaction between artistic intention and spiritual belief sculpts mood as well as movement. This choreographic choice indicates Mantsoe’s connection to his Africanist heritage. From here though Mantsoe’s composition transliterates Europeanist choreographic devices and transforms preconceived notions of African dance making. Even though the Barbican presented an obstacle for Mantsoe to reach his audience on a spiritual plane, Mantsoe succeeded in “touching” the audience with carefully chosen glances that revealed the mental and spiritual states of Barena (Chiefs) that Mantsoe portrayed.

Walking straight across the back [of the stage--ed.], Mantsoe wears a cloth that during the performance was a cloak or skirt. He carries a cane that is likened to a staff that has a symbolic importance for spiritual support for the man and indicates authority for his people. Downstage right is a small object representative of the throne upon which the chief grieves, contemplates, and administrates. Mantsoe uses music by Madosini, Tribal Ethno, and Pops Mahomed but his choice of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie 1” intended a contemplative tension. How are we to feel when “Gymnopedie 1” is heard while Mantsoe rants in desperation?

Mantsoe’s dramatic portrayal is of a chief who wars with himself, ancestors and an assortment of imaginary peoples who assail him as much as they revere him. Mantsoe invites audience members to see these antagonists as instigators of turmoil or enablers of triumph; Mantsoe’s compositional choice is intended for audience members to experience juxtaposition, to “see” the dichotomy the chief is living. The portrayal of the “chiefs” is fictional; an imaginary excursion to display the frustrations of a person who has power but limited choices and demanding responsibilities. This is almost an everyman story designed to expose the protagonist’s mind and reveal an assortment of varied relationships to himself and others either, real or imagined. This is not a ritual, initiation or rite of passage. This is an exploration into the landscape of a mind; a universal compositional choice to expose layers of consequence that have empathetic resonance for any man or woman caught in similar circumstances.

 Company Rary : Work: Titel Unknown

Company Rary - "Mpirahalahy Mianala (Several Form One)"

Company Rary was a decidedly different dance theatre experience. In this work, contemporary dance borrows from the traditional dance of Madagascar but is formalistic rather than expressionistic or representative of any culturally specific rite. For choreographer Andriamoratsiresy’s work “Mpirahalahy Mianala (Several Form One)”, audience members become voyeurs, watching movement as sculpture or the dancer’s resultant exploration in manipulating each other, props, rhythms and space.

The dancers seemed like siblings of the same family moving as one with their movement extraordinarily clean and unaffected. One can note a deliberate choice to have the dancers move as a well-rehearsed ensemble with little tolerance for individual interpretations. The movement was poignant and witty, and contained many etched stillnesses that were complemented by controlled staccato phrases. With live music by Linda Angelica Volahasiniaina and the manipulation of a wooden frame the imagery evoked a bedroom, a bus, or a platform, games, and close relations. This work succeeded in emphasising many varied contemplations for the audience’s eye to feast.

Compagnie Salia nï Seydou - “Figninto (The Torn Eye)”

Salia nï Seydou presented “Figninto (The Torn Eye)” with choreography by Seydou Boro assisted by Salia Sanou. This dance work was performance theatre. Contemplated thoughts on blindness and the consequences of time and mortality on human relationships were starting points for a work that invited audience members to sense through the imagery the union of friends and the despondence of separation. Throughout the work, moods of dissatisfaction were followed by cheeky mischievous play, moments of trust and camaraderie. At times the bodily narrative of the performers read somewhat feminine or demonstrated extraordinary bombastic prowess. The movement here was dynamic with tempered ferocity that maintained its Africanist “coolness” from beginning to end. This aesthetic is a merger of West African dance expressions and French contemporary dance theatre. With live percussion by Dramane Diabaté and Tao Irisso on musical bow and flutes this work created its own temporal space as an exploration on varied meetings and partings.

Certainly Vincent Mantsoe’s African scared/secular crossovers and Seydou Boro manipulation of Bata dance modes and performance theatre antics do not stand as representative of their respective community’s dance practices. Andriamoratsiresy’s work is more a study in movement abstraction than a reinforcement of intra-community dance traditions. Each work is the product of the choreographer’s national and international intertextual reality. Each work exemplifies the articulation of unique art practices that say nothing about nationality but everything about the melting of borders physically and the transliteration of Africanist, Asian and Europeanist theatre dance aesthetics. These dance works use Europeanist contemporary dance practices as a default unifying structure. But beyond this first glance, the gaze apprehends, if it is suitably endowed, multiple world experiences where Africanist and Asian roots coupled with individual choreographic propensities make these works dance making phenomena in their own right.

Edited by Jeff.

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