San Francisco International Arts Festival
Zaccho Dance Theatre
“Departure and Arrival”
San Francisco International Airport
May 20, 2007

“Dance en Creations”
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

Program I
Dimensions Dance Theater
Nelisiwe Xaba
May 25, 2005

Program II
Robert Moses’ Kin
Compagnie Li-Sangha
Mhaise Productions
May 24, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2007 by Rita Felciano

If the rest of this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival’s other guests brought works as vital and as beautifully performed as the debut presentations by dancers from Africa, the Festival should become a major hit in the years to come. But San Franciscans have yet to find out about it. Audiences at both “Dance En Creations” programs that I attended were sparse; the artists for the most part deserved better.

First rate was a young, all male ensemble on their maiden appearance in the United States. Compagnie Li-Sangha emanates from the French cultural center in Brazzaville/ Congo. Its choreographer, Orchy Nzaba, a short wiry master dancer, last year won the Radio France Internationale prize for dance for “Mona-Mambu.” The title, as explained in background material, refers to a Congolese expression describing an attitude of clear-sighted assessment when faced with one of life’s realities.

If choreographer Nzaba’s wildly explosive work—he is a graduate of Senegal’s L’école des sables-- is any indication, this is a society constantly in danger of falling into an abyss. But it’s also one that will survive, if on nothing else but adrenaline. The dancing is often frantic, whether competing for water or dodging bullets. It’s also highly athletic: high vertical jumps are done without preparation; dancers scoot in low squats as if on wheels.       

Each of the loosely strung together episodes explores intense experiences — of joy, terror, play, sex. Death permeates everything. The dancers recoil from what an angry God or bombs may drop on them; they “shoot” each other, laughingly hysterically yet uncertain whether this will remain a game; and they come to blows about what is better, juice or beer. Yet “Mona” also bursts with genuine humor in beer-sharing companionship, in a sexually charged game of horsy. Instead of votes, a ballot box is full of beer bottles; an oncoming “heartache” turns out to be a sneeze.

Some of the most effective moments come from the pure dance sections that bridge the more narrative parts. To watch these men so adept at contemporary expression, yet so rooted in tradition, is inspiring. In addition to Nzaba, the other fine, colorfully named performers were Boungouandza Bibene Chanel Byb, Balossa Nganga Nodary Christel Sthyk, Ikoli Nkazi Rudolpf Ulitch Au Carré and Makaya François Hervé Kayos.

Very different in tone, but also excellently realized was “Umthombi” (male adolescent) by the South African Mhayise Productions’. It featured choreographer Musa Hatshwayo and a very young, beautifully expressive Ngcebo Nzama in what looked like the re-enactment of an initiation ceremony. Hatshwayo, dressed in something like bush-traveling outfit, unobtrusively guides the younger dancer, in cut-offs and one-shouldered T-shirt. Entering unknown territory, they remove their shoes and proceed carefully, one calm, the other terrified. The guide virtually ignores the jittery youth who jumps at every sound and tries to hide in the other man’ shadow. Eventually, Nzama’ big loping leaps set him into what looks like a maize-throwing ecstasy in whose residue the two men dive. Towards the end Hatshwayo sits in a corner and sings/whistles a lovely melody as if waiting for the youth to return.

This simply performed and beautifully structured duet was much enhanced by a score whose complex and threatening nature sounds suggested the dangers of the territory to be explored. In contrast a vocal track of singers evoked the community into which the young man was to graduate.

Preceding the two African companies was the premiere of a delightfully unpretentious but smartly designed piece by Robert Moses who also signed for the music. He choreographed it for a fine group of freelance professionals, Norma Fong, Kelly Del Rosario and Yeni Lucero. Performing with them was Dwayne Weatherford, a member of Moses’ Kin company, and Tanya Bello an apprentice. A gentle bounce, as if proceeding on unstable ground informs the work’s fluid shifts of attention and relationships. A touch on the shoulder means a change of partners. In a recurring motive dancers hold on to someone’s foot, whether to steady or unbalance him or her is not clear. One couple particularly stood out: Tall and skinny Weatherford flips tiny Bello as if twirling a baton; later on she slides down his body as if on a pole.

The works on Program I, which I saw on the second night, proved to be more problematic. Dimension Dance Theater was paired with South African soloist Nelisiwe Xaba. On the evening I attended, she chose to only present one of the two pieces, “They Look at Me and That’s All They Think.” It was inspired by Sara Bartman, the African woman who in the 19th century in France became an object of humiliation and voyeurism under the guise of scientific inquiry.

This piece of performance art was not a success, primarily because it was more concerned with the use of specific props than with making an eloquent statement through them. We learned little about Bartman, nothing about Xaba’s take on this sorry piece of history.

Xaba performs inside a huge semi-transparent, shape-changing skirt--perhaps fashioned from parachute silk--in green socks, yellow underwear and white heels. The episodes—involving at one-point balloons to enlarge buttocks and breast—move at a glacial pace. Some of the posings seem inspired by upside down Cancan dancers; more than once Xaba also looks like a Josephine Baker parody. There also is a strip tease and a tango on a ladder. At its best, the sad-eyed dancer—only her head visible inside her billowing costume—looks like floating jellyfish.

Dimensions presented a forty-minute, six-section excerpt from a larger to-be work, “Cross Currents,” intended as a tribute to African Americans moving to the Bay Area. As it stands now, the piece starts with a musical and narrative evocation, ‘Tale of Califia’, about Africans who may have moved to the new world, perhaps in the service of conquerors like Cortez. “Cross Currents” subsequently traces the excitement and curiosity of the newcomers, their disappointments and pains, their celebrating and self-assertion. One episode, ‘Sumi’s Story,’ is a poignant tale of a Japanese war bride and the discrimination she faced in San Francisco. The dancing follows taped narration in some ways telling us what we will see.

Deborah Vaughan’s choreography favors overlapping choral movements with unisons that emphasize community yet leave room for particularized expression. It’s a way of highlighting the individuality of her ten finely honed dancers. (Veteran Laura Elaine Ellis and apprentice Philicia Stroud were particularly noteworthy). But overall, the episodes were not choreographically distinct enough. What happens through the costume changes and the music — richly textured and ever surprising--should also happen in the choreography. Quite successful was the quiet mournfulness of ‘Melancholia’ which featured lovingly weighted and softly supporting partnering.

The Festival’s opening had taken place at an unusual venue, between two sets of check-in counters at the new International Terminal at the San Francisco Airport. With her customary care to detail and an uncanny ability to create a sense of contemplation in the most unlikely places, Joanna Haigood’s “Departure and Arrival” evoking the Middle Passage of thousands of Africans to the new world.

Reasoning somewhat speciously, the printed program suggested continuity between the slaves and today’s immigrants. Without disrespecting the travails of present days arrivals, there is a huge difference. None of the travelers from Africa came here out of their own free will.

With dusk filtering through the roof’s huge skylights and against the vague hum of the airport speakers (their volume must have been lowered), a series of skeleton dream houses softly sway overhead. In one of them Haigood moves slowly, exploring its space, its structure its ambience. It is a home freed from gravity, embracing her as pedals upside down, stretches into diagonals, curls into fetal positions.

Other dancers occupied more terrestrial ground on two platforms as they re-enact of history. Sheryeel Washington’s gorgeously rounded African-based dancing weaves through the piece like ancient memory. A bushy-haired Robert Henry Johnson in a tenderly elegant relationship that falls apart partners former Lines Ballet dancers Maurya Kerr. In the work’s most chilling moment Noe Serrano, as the slave auctioneer, displays Kerr’s breasts, examines her teeth and makes her dance a few steps. Even though this was just a re-enactment, it was difficult to watch.  In one corner Johnson dances a ring-shout; Ramon Ramos Alayo a fierce Afro-Cuban solo. As the lights go down, a traveler with a suitcase arrives and brings a basket from which he pours “water” of reconciliation. With everyone crowded into one of those tiny house and the sounds of crickets, “Departure” could have had a sentimentalized ending. It’s to Haigood and her fine collaborators’ credit that it didn’t.

Top: (L-R) Dimensions Dance: Latanya d. Tigner, Laura Elaine Ellis, Anisa Rasheed. Photo by Mat Haber
Middle (and front page): Orchy Nzaba of Li-Sangha. Photos by Giro Ose.
Bottom: Joanna Haigood's Zaccho Dance Theatre.

Volume 5, No. 21
May 28, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Rita Felciano

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