“Récréation Primitive," presented by Merlin Nyamkam’s Compagnie La Calebasse
by Joëlle Kane
Compagnie la Calebasse presented “Récréation Primitive,” an outstanding mix of contemporary and Cameroonian dance, at the Théâtre National de Chaillot on Wednesday night. Not just any dance troupe has the opportunity to perform at this renowned theatre and Calebasse certainly deserved the space. The piece opens with a very modern transparent screen projecting larger-than-life faces moving their mouths to background music. Behind this thin veil, the audience sees real-life silhouettes of big bodies twisted in different positions, wearing long flowing white skirts. The screen lifts and one drummer, painted all white, appears on stage, singing in a faraway language and tapping a talking drum squeezed between arm and ribcage. After this tiny taste of what is to come, four men and one woman all painted with white powder, like skirted warriors, start dancing, quivering, and whirling around the stage with unbounded, frenetic energy, the kind that invigorates the audience through its transference. And that was only the beginning.
The director, Merlin Nyakam, had the audience at his feet and in his theatrical heart. Every movement, every step of the way was fresh, seamlessly combining traditional and modern dance, song, drumming and visual effects. Nykam, a short but strongly built man, shone brightly amidst his effervescent troupe. His body was at times an electric wire, filled with tension and purpose while his facial gestures told stories and jokes, like pantomime through white paint. He successfully reinterpreted his own dance culture through this complex approach of crossing and connecting geographical and artistic borders.
And complex it was. Compagnie la Calebasse fused contemporary dance with the rounded movements of Cameroonian dance: solid but curvaceous torso twirls and hip undulations. Central African dance, rooted in the lightness of the body, allows arms to become accessories and hips, shoulders and neck to become isolated parts that, when moved like waves in the sea, somehow flow together perfectly. But their movements were also hard. It is the rigid force that makes the dancers move, that lifts them in the air and drops them back down on stage as solid, moving art forms. The single female dancer held her own, proving just as strong in force and presence as her male counterparts. Sometimes dancing in choreographed unison, sometimes solo, she always stood out because she commanded a space of her own and she moved her body in ways unimaginable to the untrained eye. She even filled a pause of silence as she danced across the stage slowly like a wave. No music, no noise, except the light sounds of her bare feet hitting the boards.
At the end of the performance, the director came back on stage and asked the audience to sing a tune and sway from left to right while each dancer came out and did a solo performance. Everybody sang, everybody swayed and everybody waited for more. And when the lights went down and the audience slowly walked out, words like “magic”, “a real gold mine”, “makes me happy”, “beautiful art”, “fantastic”, “how do they move like that?”, all filled the hallway. Others wondered “why the white paint?”. Since many African cultures see white as the color that links them to their ancestors, it is clear that every detail in this performance, from the color of paint to the visual projections on screen, linked roots to modernity in an outstandingly eclectic performance. After all, it’s not just any dance troupe or theatre company that can perform at the Théâtre National de Chaillot.