“Border crossings — that’s what it’s about, in so many different ways,” says choreographer and musician Olivier Tarpaga, describing “When Birds Refused to Fly.” His Philadelphia and Burkina Faso-based company, Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, is bringing the work to Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts Friday through Sunday, October 18 through 20.
First off, Tarpaga says, “Our company is trans-national. In this work we have four dancers from Burkina Faso, a lighting designer from France, a videographer from Italy, and me [the choreographer], I’m from Burkina, though I live here and I’m a U.S. citizen. But our border crossing is not just geographic, it’s also stylistic. We cross the border between dance and theater.”
Tarpaga categorizes his work as contemporary dance theater. “Because it’s a hybrid,” he explains. “I studied traditional West African dance and music, and then I studied contemporary dance and improvisation. Through improvisation, I started transforming traditional West African movements into a hybrid form that became my signature dance style.”
In “When Birds Refused to Fly,” which Tarpaga both conceived and choreographed, dance movements are employed to explore a theme that represents yet another way in which the work concerns border crossings. The piece draws comparisons between the emotional experiences of black Americans during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and those of Burkinabe Africans following the independence of Upper Volta, declared in 1960. (The country’s name was changed to Burkina Faso in 1984.)
According to Tarpaga, his work’s title is telling. “It doesn’t mean that the bird can’t fly, but rather that it chooses not to,” he explains. “When sub-Saharan African countries asked for independence — and I’m going to focus on Francophone countries because that’s where I come from — we knew we were saying no to French citizenship. We knew the good that comes with the French passport, but at the same time we knew the limits we would have being half-French. You feel like a half-person. So when we asked for independence, we had everything in front of us to fly by being French, but we decided to walk by keeping our identity and the freedom of doing and being the way we wanted. In 1958 President Sekou Toure of Guinea said, ‘We prefer our freedom in poverty than opulence in slavery.’ That’s what inspired the title of ‘When Birds Refused to Fly.’”
Yet perhaps the most powerful way in which Tarpaga’s work reflects border crossings is its musical score, re-mixed archival recordings of the country’s renowned Orchestre Super Volta.
Born and raised in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, Tarpaga was the son of saxophonist Richard Tarpaga, a leading figure in that musical group. “The band was based in our family compound. My home was where all the musicians came to rehearse, so as a very young kid I was exposed to that and I became so excited about the music. After they were done rehearsing, I would go into their rehearsal room and start banging on all the instruments, and I would get punished because I sometimes broke them,” says Tarpaga.
But despite Tarpaga’s enthusiasm for the music, his father refused to teach him how to play an instrument or to read musical notation. “I was the only one in the whole family he didn’t want to be a musician. He wanted me to pursue my schooling and become a doctor or something like that. But I was extremely passionate about the arts, and even though I was the only one he wouldn’t teach to play, I ended up being the only musician in the family. He taught music to two of my older brothers, and they hated it. It was a waste of time. They didn’t want to do it, and I was sitting there crying when he was teaching them, begging him to teach me, but he wouldn’t.”
Tarpaga grew up in a large family with lots of siblings, including half-siblings of royal descent. “My father had 13 kids, seven with my mother. He had two wives,” Tarpaga explains. “His first wife, who passed away two years before I was born, was a princess, the daughter of a powerful king. In my country we have an emperor. He’s the emperor of the Mossi people. And the emperor has ministers, who are kings. And the father of my father’s first wife was one of those ministers.”
Yet despite his father’s reluctance to teach him music, Tarpaga studied it on his own, on the sly. He would lie that he was going to a friend’s house to work on homework and instead go to a music class or rehearsal. He would then stay up late at night and work alone in his room on his homework. Since he managed to always bring home excellent grades, his father was never the wiser.
As a teenager, Tarpaga performed with a youth music and dance company. “They selected youth with particular talent, and then trained you professionally, and they also helped you do well at school, which was a good formula,” says Tarpaga. “You could continue your education and get a strong training as an artist, and also have a career while doing it. That’s how I got my formal training. I was trained hard in music, dance, and theater. I even did stand-up comedy.”
Ultimately Tarpaga formed his own dance company, toured his choreography throughout Europe and Africa, and eventually moved to New York.
In 2004, upon his father’s death, Tarpaga’s mother gave him a plastic bag containing recordings of Orchestre Super Volta. “I didn’t open them, but I kept them with me as I moved from state to state over the years,” says Tarpaga, who had always been afraid of the emotional reactions hearing the recordings might trigger in him. “But in 2016 I finally opened them. When I heard them I knew right away they were going to be my next project.” It is those recordings that form the basis of the musical score for “When Birds Refused to Fly.”
Initially, Tarpaga was excited about using those recordings because they would allow him to connect the music made during his childhood by his father with the choreography he was making currently as an adult.
However, as he began to deeply research the music of the Orchestre Super Volta — finding clips on YouTube, to his great surprise — he discovered there were meaningful layers of larger historical and cultural connections to be illuminated. “When I listened to the music, I realized that a lot of it was inspired by African-American music. My father’s music from the 1960s was helping people celebrate their country’s independence. But the music that inspired my father’s band to make their music was black American music, music that reflected the Black Liberation movement, not only as a struggle, but as a celebration of ways of making change.
“In the band’s music, there’s rumba, there’s salsa, there’s Afrobeat, and you can smell a lot of James Brown in there. One of the musicians from the band had said his biggest inspiration was Otis Redding. There was a song they played called ‘Father Otis,’ which is an homage to Redding. That song has a key role in the score for ‘When Birds Refused to Fly.’”
Currently a lecturer in music and dance, as well as director of the African music ensemble at Princeton University, Tarpaga began his academic career at UCLA, where he taught from 2004 to 2009. “That’s because my wife [Esther Baker-Tarpaga] was working on her M.F.A. in dance there. We met in New York and I moved to Los Angeles with her,” he says.
The couple then taught at Ohio State University for five years and at the University of Iowa for a year, before moving to Philadelphia — where they currently live — to teach at the University of the Arts. “Then I was invited to be a guest artist at Princeton,” Tarpaga says, “and the doors just kept opening for me. The department chair liked what I was doing, and my job there continued to grow and grow. My wife is now a lecturer at Temple University in the dance department, and she’s into performance art. Her work is quite different from mine, which is why our company is called Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, because it’s two different approaches.”
In addition to his performance projects and university work, Tarpaga has also been an arts envoy for the United States Department of State, traveling to different countries to teach arts education. “I’m a person who spends a lot of my time talking about cultural diplomacy, so I find it very interesting that my father had also been a teacher and then a diplomat for the government.”
Tarpaga’s mother was a government employee too, with the Ministry of Agriculture. “They would send her to small villages where she would educate the people about how to understand and work with the soil. She wasn’t directly involved with the band. But she would do things for them, like cook them some good food. She was always trying to make everybody comfortable. She was around a lot of testosterone. My mother is a beautiful woman, and I knew she was playing the ‘cultural diplomat’ among all these guys, especially when some of them were hitting on her. She just kept the peace by smiling at everyone. It’s a tough subject to talk about,” Tarpaga says. “There’s one female dancer in ‘When Birds Refused to Fly.’ She’s portraying my mother.”
When Birds Refused to Fly, Princeton University, Lewis Center Complex, Hearst Dance Theater, 122 Alexander Street, Princeton. Friday, October 18, 8 p.m.; Saturday, October 19, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, October 20, 2 p.m. $10 to $17. arts.princeton.edu/events/when-birds-refused-to-fly