The Carolina Theatre of Durham presented an astonishing dance troupe in Fletcher Hall as part of its “Never Ordinary” series. Les Ballets Africains, the national dance ensemble of the Republic of Guinea, tours the world but rarely performs in such an intimate theater. On the 16th, their extraordinary music and dance, and the audience’s enthusiasm, rattled the rafters of Durham’s venerable downtown performance hall.
Thanks to Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble, and its progeny, such as the Berry and Nance Dance Project, North Carolinians, especially in the Triangle area, are knowledgeable and passionate fans of African styles of dance. Sadly, the hordes availing themselves of the opportunity to see this first-rate African company fully exposed the Carolina’s worst weakness: its ticketing and will-call systems. While dozens waited in the freezing night to purchase tickets, hundreds of others jammed the lobby, trying to pick up tickets they’d previously purchased. This fiasco delayed the performance considerably, but once it did begin, “Mandinko Memories” was glorious from start to finish.
Every aspect was rich: the drums, accompanied by several kinds of stringed instruments, a large wooden flute, and a xylophone-type instrument; the fabulous costumes, patterned and decorated and hung with all sorts of movable parts; the “scenery,” easily changed because it was projected onto the scrims; the use of colored lighting; and most of all, the dancing. Not only was the dancing a feast of motion and emotion, it conveyed the narrative with utmost clarity. You had to go to the program notes for facts, such as that this epic theatrical was based on history and myth passed down in the Mandinko culture since 1235 when at least some part of the story presented took place. But you didn’t need the program at all to understand exactly what was happening in each scene. Here was definitive proof that art can transcend the borders of language and culture.
Euro-style ballet is a precision art, requiring that the dancers be in exactly the right position in exactly the right place at exactly the right instant, all while exhibiting a kind of lyric grace and finesse and projecting their emotional interpretation of the music. This is the foundation of its enchantment. African-style ballet depends not on precision but on a deeply felt sense of rhythm and interval. It is not necessary for the dancers to be absolutely synchronized in every motion. Everyone is on the beat, but not doing exactly the same thing, as they move through the general plan. There is room for contingency, for a little improvisation, and this increases the sense of freedom already ignited by the unfettered shimmying going on. This also means that everyone on stage has to pay attention to everyone else, and part of what is always conveyed is the fit of each person into his or her community—and the way that community is dependent on each of those persons. As Baba Chuck Davis has taught us, in African dance each person gets to come to the center and be the lauded star. Each then steps back to make room for another. All are equal.
Besides a zestful physicality and humorous delight in the possibilities of human motion, at its best African dance shows us what Dr. Martin Luther King said in a very different context: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” To make us happy in that knowledge is part of the art of a great company like Les Ballets Africains.