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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 13, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

African Dance in America, Then & Now

Africa and America go way back together. For more than

300 years, by way of the scourge of slavery, African sacred and

secular

dance has been a fertile and liberating agent for the arts in America.

Beginning with the middle passage, West African slaves transplanted

a spiritual and artistic love of dance on this continent.

Historically, dance has always been — and continues to be —

of central importance in West Africa. There it is both a routine

community

activity and an integral part of sacred ceremonies that bind its

members

together. Le Ballet National du Senegal, a high-voltage company of

30 dancers and musicians, is the premiere dance company performing

traditional dances of West Africa today. When they travel across the

world to present their dances this week at State Theater, don’t be

surprised if you feel quite at home.

As a liberating force in American social and vernacular dance, African

dance is all around us. As the performance unfolds, you may catch

glimpses of moves that are reminiscent of every aspect of our own

social dance from tap, jazz, jitterbug, and jive, to the twist, mashed

potato, and more contemporary break dancing and hip-hop.

And it doesn’t end with club dancing, African dance

has also been a key ingredient in the flowering of American modern

dance over the 20th century. The late Alvin Ailey, whose company

continues

to galvanize terrific enthusiasm, once described his first

choreographic

creations as dances based on his "blood memories." From the

African-American artistry of an Alvin Ailey or Ballet Theater of

Harlem,

the African influence permeates the ballet world, from the

revolutionary

neo-classicism of George Balanchine right up to Twyla Tharp’s new

Broadway hit, "Movin’ Out."

Le Ballet National du Senegal was founded by poet and national leader

Leopold Senghor in 1960, the year that Senegal achieved independence

from French colonial rule. As Senegal’s most famous and well-traveled

troupe, Ballet National has performed numerous sold-out North American

tours. Today the company’s artistic director and choreographer, who

also performs onstage with his troupe, is Bouly Sonko.

This fall, the company offers a new stage show,

"Kuuyamba"

which comes to the State Theater, New Brunswick, Friday, November

15. Prior to the 8 p.m. curtain, a 7 p.m. pre-performance talk by

a Ballet National company member, will help orient audiences. Held

at the United Methodist Church, close to the theater, this talk is

free, sponsored by Fleet.

"Exuberance" is the word most used in the glowing reviews

received by Le Ballet National du Senegal. The company’s work is

characterized

by high-energy choreography that soars on and above the stage,

performed

by dancers with unmatched physical gifts and discipline. Not only

do these dancers communicate the unbridled joy of dancing, they offer

audiences the sensual pleasures of watching beautiful bodies in

motion.

Dazzling choreography, airborne acrobatics, amazing stilt-dancing,

elaborate costumes, and colorful masks are all part of Ballet

National’s

theatrical pageant.

Whether entertaining in local villages or on stages around the world,

the company strives to express the "true face of Senegal"

with authentic dance and music representing its culture and

traditions.

African-American dance historian Katrina Hazzard-Gordon writes,

"We

can say without exaggeration that dance competency, if not

proficiency,

is required of all individuals in traditional West African

society."

She writes that public officials such as chiefs, elders, and priests

who lack great dance moves, may have to undergo remedial dance lessons

before taking office.

Today it is said to be the dream of the finest young African dancers

and musicians to become a part of Le Ballet National du Senegal.

Members

of the troupe travel throughout the country learning the music and

dances of Senegal’s 15 ethnic groups to enrich their theatrical

programs

and to preserve the West African cultural heritage.

The Washington Post concurs. "Throughout years of international

touring, Le Ballet National du Senegal has presented the traditional

movement and music of its country in the most direct and heartfelt

fashion imaginable. Rhythm is the source of all that it does, the

language that allows for instant communication among the dancers and

with the spectators. "

Musical accompaniment for the Ballet National du

Senegal’s

performances is provided by its own ensemble who beat out the

polyrhythms

on drums and traditional instruments that fuel the dancers’ art. Live

music, performed onstage together with the dance, is the spine of

the performance, uniting dancers and musicians as well as performers

and spectators. Instruments native to West African culture that will

be featured in the show include the Kora, a kind of 21-stringed harp

made from a large gourd known for its soft sonorities, and the Balafon

Dalinke, a xylophone-like instrument resembling the marimba which

is used to greet the King and Queen in their palace. Also featured

in the Lama, a small drum described as "the joy of Senegalese

women" for the way its pulsations give free rein to the women’s

undulating sensuality. Finally, another stringed instrument, the Dan,

is played as part of the theatrical initiation ceremony, an instrument

dedicated to traditional celebratory events and originally played

only by initiated men.

"Kuuyamba" is designed to bring audiences a close view of

ritual dance in Senegalese culture. Its title is derived from

Mandingue

culture, and the dance drama itself focuses on the initiation rites

of young people attaining adulthood in their traditional community.

The word "Kuuyamba" describes the second sojourn into the

sacred forest where the initiation from adolescence into adulthood

takes place. Through music, dance, and song, the ceremonies are said

to restore the beauty and freedom of the body.

"Kuuyamba" is composed of three parts: the Sama, the Djigui,

and the Silimbo. The Sama is danced by the young people being

initiated

to the accompaniment of sacred songs. They invoke the spirits and

ask the permission of the gods to perform the Silimbo (or initiation).

During the Djigui, the chief of the village comes out after a mystic

"chat" with the spirits and announces the good news: the

spirits

have given their approval and the Silimbo will take place.

The third step, the performance of the Silimbo, is a celebration of

rhythm, colors, the beauty of the body, and the magnificence of West

African percussion. Eight sections comprise the performance of the

Silimbo and include two musical interludes on Kora, Balafon Dalinke,

and the Dan.

The dance scenes include the Bara Mbaye, an opportunity for masters

of their art to join together and talk to the sound and music played

by these instruments. The young "Ndananes," experts of rhythm

and dance, face off as rivals competing for the attentions of the

Senegalese women who beat the "lama," or small drum. Again

the very notion of the challenge dance illustrated here took root

in America from its African origins. It shows up in early 20th century

street corner challenges between tap dancers, and became a key

ingredient

in break dance and hip-hop dance innovation.

After generations of fusion and assimilation, Le Ballet National du

Senegal still travels the globe to give audiences of all ethnicities

direct access to the source of its age-old dancing joy.

— Nicole Plett

National Ballet of Senegal, State Theater, 15

Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. "Kuuyamba" based on

traditional

initiation rites of Mandingue culture. $20 to $32. Friday, November

15, 8 p.m.

Free pre-performance "Insight" lecture by a company

member takes place at 7 p.m. at the United Methodist Church, sponsored

by Fleet.


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