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Faustin Linyekula

'Triptyque sans Titre'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September 17, 2005 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco

The choreography started before we even got to the theater as we wove through traffic in the general vicinity of the Yerba Buena Center, doing the parking dance that urban dwellers know so well.

Turning down Seventh Street, in a, shall we say, gulch of detritus yet uncleansed by the tourism office, it starts to look like a video game.  Pedestrian!  Orange cone!  Truck, TRUCK!  Pedestrian! Shopping cart! Guy sitting in street!

In the usual dusky San Francisco gales, a plastic bag sails inquisitively over our windshield, like Pascal Lamorisse’s Red Balloon. But less concerned with the romance of urban life, we loop around to the parking garage and hurry toward the park where the theater is located.

“Private Party!” barks a guy in a leather jacket and cap.  He jerks a thumb over toward a detour which takes us around the park. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if we’ll ever get to see Faustin Linyekula, foremost contemporary choreographer of the Democratic Republic of Congo, at all.  The show is sold out, according to a sign in the box office, and with some relief, we scurry into some open seats in the multi-use space of the Forum as the usher hands us a program and …earplugs?

“They’re recommended,” she says matter-of-factly, proffering sets of bright yellow foam plugs in individually wrapped bags to my companion and me.

Oh.  Okay.

Now, there have been times when I’ve dearly wanted a pair of earplugs -- certain performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen works spring to mind -- but this isn’t boding well for the performance we’re about to see, I think to myself.  I couldn’t be more wrong.

Already in the open floor, a guy (Joachim Montessuis) is hunched over a knot of wires and machinery topped with a small laptop making noise.  As the piece begins, onstage are two men (Djodjo Kazadi and Daddy Kamono) in long robes, not unlike those of the Jedi Knights, while another man wanders in a loudly colored jacket and pants and Linyekula himself traverses the space clad in a skirt of newspaper.  Maybe 7th Street is not so far away from Kinshasa after all.

Linyekula tells us he has a story, and it’s quite a tale from the look of things.  The piece, according to press material, is about the fragmentary memories of a life lived in the nation now known as the Congo, the heart of darkness whose violent and disturbing history stretches from mad despotic kings and environmental rape to famine, civil war and chaos. Exploited throughout its existence for its abundant natural resources -- it was for rubber and ivory that Belgium’s King Leopold II enslaved and slaughtered millions of Africans -- Congo continues to suffer brutal atrocities today, notably in the quest for the mineral coltan, which is used to make small electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops, but which, like conflict diamonds, also funds warring armies throughout the region.

Linyekula offers us snatches of scenes whose literal or figurative meaning we can only guess at.  His own dancing emerges in frenetic twitchy spurts that look like an itch that can’t be scratched, amidst odd moments -- reading a book in the dark, dancing with a partner in a white plastic sack that calls to mind a body bag.  There’s an immediate macabre creepiness to every interaction between the dancers.

As the four men move, around the stage, Montessuis builds up the sound feedback with a microphone and the computer until the cacophony becomes hardly bearable.  But as I reach for the earplugs, I suddenly think of a photo I once saw -- of a basket of severed human hands, the price for not meeting your rubber quota in Leopold’s ironically named “Congo Free State.”  I think of the images from the deadly ebola outbreak which ravaged the country in the 70’s when it was called Zaire. The massacres and ethnic cleansing that have resulted from the Laurent Kabila’s second Congo War.  To read the history of the Congo is to scan arguably the most hellish litany of miseries ever visited by human beings on other humans.  Surely, I can take a horrifying sound for a few minutes.

It goes on pouring into your ears, elevating your blood pressure for what seems like a lifetime, and then just as you’re sure you might faint from the sound pressure, it suddenly drops out, along with the lights, leaving only the wistful sounds of the performers singing acoustically in the dark, who come back gradually from the darkness.

To be honest, Montessuis’ contribution was the most questionable part of “Triptyque.”  I’m told, and I am perfectly willing to believe, that the same visceral impact of sheer sound can be achieved without rupturing the eardrums, but curiously, I’m still compelled by the physical effects the assault produces, which, true to the title, occurs three times.

Linyekula’s theme, as he states it, is that he had a story to tell, but he can’t remember it now, because of the noise in his head.

The plugs are still in their little plastic bag and the images are still in my mind.

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