Le Ballet National du Senegal


Cal Performances,
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

October 9, 2002
By Toba Singer

Kuuyamba, the title of a new show by Le Ballet National du Senegal, is derived from the language of the Mandique, and refers to the tradition of the young adult's sojourn into the sacred forest, initiating the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. The 42-year-old company long ago completed its own adolescence. Nonetheless, the dancers impart a palpable delight and novelty in their rendering of traditional dance forms that are accompanied by an ensemble of drums and indigenous instruments such as the balafon dalinke, which sounds like a xylophone, but looks like a marimba. It comes from the Tambacunda region, and is played by men who have fullfilled their initiation rites.

With rudimentary props, and a set that denotes a parallel passage from dawn to dusk, it is as if, at the choreographer's bidding, the company brings onto the stage a great bundle of Senegalese traditions. Using a daily ritual or chore as the basis for each piece, out of the "bundle" emerges music made with gourds and bowls and dances using churns, cloth and brooms as props. A dancer responding to a drum, sweeps the stage to a funga rhythm. Hot coals from the cooking fire prompt another invention by two men, whose simple dance is followed by a pantomimed conversation by three men who are part of a regal entourage. The magesterial drape of the costumes and their rich colors are as key to the pageantry as the story told by the dance.

Women enter with branches, rolling and shaping them as they move across the stage in a kind of voyagé. A traveler curtain drops. It is made from rag strips similar to those that are woven together to make a braided rug. Its many colors offer a presentiment of the nuanced celebration of voices and movements depicting friendly rivalries and an entire tapestry of daily life, spirited into motion by the drum.

Men dance like birds of prey, women spin in the air like bumblebees bloated with honey. The constellation of stars returns after the sun has set, as props are lifted with teeth, freeing arms and legs to dance out the final diurnal rituals.

Le Ballet National du Senegal brings with it an inventive spirit, a power that predates electricity and invites a warm welcome and response from the Zellerbach audience.


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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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