'Triptyque Sans Titre'
by Toba Singer
September 16 , 2005 -- Studio Kabako, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
As the lobby fills up, there is palpable anticipation in the air. Volunteer ushers pass out earplugs along with programs. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum is set up so that two graduated seating sections meet at right angles, overlooking the theater-in-the round stage. On the far side of the darkened stage, while an usher volubly urges people not to leave empty seats—the performance is sold out—Faustin Linyekula, the choreographer of “Triptyque Sans Titre,” begins a chant. Two Britons, one seated behind me, and the other standing in front of the African woman seated next to me, greet each other with an ebullience worthy of the Ascot racetrack. Their reunion forces the African woman to leave her seat in order to glimpse Linyekula as he sings. Noticing, the woman seated behind us explains to her acquaintance that he has driven the woman from her seat. He steps aside, as he remands the African woman back to her seat and the friend behind us thanks her. Neither offers an apology, however. This offstage prelude could have been part of the show.
Dancers from The Democratic Republic of the Congo enter a performance space in the nation where the words “Democratic” and “Republic” made their debut and, once institutionalized, showed a hideous face to the colonial and semi-colonial world. "Democratic Republic" is the centerpiece of a political "branding" campaign, less authentic each time it's launched with impunity in new markets, often bolstered by military detachments.
Seven huge white plastic bags sit at various points on the dark stage, along with a sound mixer. Single bulb lights on cables hang from the ceiling. As the chant continues, a low tremolo builds under it. “Ibo, Ibo, Ibo, Ibo,” invokes the choreographer’s exile to Kenya. The sound of a million crickets comes next over the tremolo, which has become a rumble. One of the lights is swinging from side to side, and we see that it will not only be part of the set, but also a prop. The singer wears a white shirt, his lower torso wrapped in newsprint. If there is a whiff of Cirque du Soleil, it is rendered paradoxical, because unlike that show, this one is grounded and authentic.
Linyekula begins moving across a diagonal—lithe, quick, seemingly unfettered, and so facile that it brings to mind the image of a young woman swinging her hips. It is not a repellant “femme” look—like lipstick on a male mouth, but a curious, graceful, almost feral femininity that is difficult to turn away from. Three more men enter. Two wear beige caftans, and look like brothers. The third is built small, like Linyekula, and wears plaid pants and a sports jacket. The men grab the bags that lie onstage, and deliberately shake them menacingly. One of the caftan wearers glares at the audience, as the other smiles insincerely. As they complete their circuit, a noise like a death rattle builds to a deafening crescendo, and the dancers take their places. The dancer in jacket and pants undulates in a mesmerizing wave, followed by Linyekula slinking his way toward the dangling light. He’s a gentler reflection of the more aggressive jacketed dancer. The caftan men mirror each other face to face, squatting, arms akimbo.
Sound and lights go off, and an a cappella chant rises to the accompaniment of a clapping contretemps rhythm, punctuated with a gentle “heh.” We can’t see their steps in the dark, but we can hear them. The dancers chant a word that sounds similar to “Abuela,” the Spanish word for “grandmother.” The chant loses its timidity under cover of darkness. A call and response exchange ensues, as the dancers break into a hopscotch-like prance that rattles the newsprint kilt.
The jacketed dancer fills the space with bold steps and then falls to the floor, prostrate. The caftan dancers remain still, facing one another. Swinging lights define the space. As the Caftan dancers assume a threatening pose, Linyekula engages with his mirror-image jacketed partner. All but Linyekula race through the space in a four-legged Quasimodo run. He sees the others only with his body. He seeks light and freedom from encroachment by the jacketed dancer, who slithers to center/center.
In his effort to just stand erect, Linyekula convulses. He disburses his energy in fits and starts until it is spent, registered by a cacophony of sound. Most of the audience has by now made use of the earplugs. Linyekula’s paper kilt is in shreds. The jacketed dancer taunts him as if he were prey. Darkness is everywhere once again, and the big sound has moved into a diminuendo, with each man finding his own voice in song. “Maman yeh” “Pappa yeh.” The audience weighs in as a massive, silent, collective noun, a panel of privileged experts on a sociological safari.
The Caftan men pull the bags over their heads. Three of them walk and shake out the bags. They shake them in utter frustration. As the jacketed man reads aloud in a dialect we don’t recognize, the caftan men run forward and back, and then lie on their sides, stretching and reaching toward the heavens, smiles plastered on their faces. Linyekula peels off his kilt to reveal a pair of black briefs, and his mirror dancer removes his jacket. A body-sized white nylon sack—the kind that in colonial countries is usually filled with grain or feed—is placed over his head. Linyekula carries him, taking the burden of his weight, as he picks up the Maman, Pappa chant, as well. Even as this load begins to assume the proportions of a corpse, it also looks to be a commodity, borne by Linyekula, just as the Caftan dancer carries his brother. Three of the men surround the bagged dancer. They push him one to the other in a terrifying game of Blind Man’s Buff.
Finally, he is carried off, and the Caftan men bend forward toward the floor. They trace a path by skimming their fingers along the floor, as if it were sand. Linyekula dances a slow “High Life” with the corpse. There is a hint of Greek Comedy/Tragedy masks in the expressions of the Caftan brothers. Their caftans removed, their lower torsos are swathed in kettle cloth. They undertake a slow, hobbled, gyroscope-like tumbling advance downstage. Barely visible screened images of faces fill the black drape that is the backdrop. Just as we are wondering why they are screened on black, the dancers place the white bags over their heads, and dance before the projector. Now the images are visible as they move along the white bags, transmuting the dancers’ anima. The music cuts off, as a reprise of the plaintive chant that opened the piece becomes its coda. Linyekula addresses the audience:
“So here I am, ladies and gentlemen: Kabako. I had a story to tell, but there was so much noise in my head that I forgot everything.”
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