Bodies in movement

Ayoko Mensah

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This autumn, the Salia nï Seydou dance company (Burkina Faso) and Congolese choreographer, Faustin Linyekula presented their latest creations in Paris. These two pieces are radically different but both display an increasing freedom of expression.

At first glance, Burkina Faso choreographers Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro’s fourth piece, « Weeleni, l’appel…« , and « Triptyque sans titre – fragments et autres boues recyclés » (Triptych without a title: fragments and other recycled mud), by Congolese choreographer, Faustin Linyekula, could not be more different. This is in itself a good thing as it confirms the diversity of choreographic creation being produced in Africa. Visually, the two pieces are opposed. The first is a series of three solos and is very grounded. It is sketch-like, goes back in time. The second piece is a frenzy of wandering characters. It takes a free dive into the urban chaos of Kinshasa.
As different as they would seem, however, these two pieces are united in their study of presence – the simple, inexorable and fascinating presence of bodies exposed on stage.
In « Weeleni, l’appel« , the four musicians (a singer on keyboards, a percussionist and two guitarists), sit in a large semi-circle facing the audience as if representing the cardinal points of the stage layout. When one of the three characters is not dancing, he also sits and watches the others dance. The emotional power of each solo is doubled by its contrast with these immobile, watchful figures. A dialogue is established between the figures and the solitary, touchingly naked, moving body, which is the focus of everyone’s gaze. The sitting figures do not need to move because even in their silence they feed, guide, sooth and heighten the vibrant energy of the dancer.
Invisible flows seem to « materialise » when the music starts, supporting the movement. In « Weeleni », the bodies show us this visible and invisible, audible and inaudible game magnificently. Each person’s presence, by progressively echoing the others, is laid bare and intensified. In the end, the piece is not really a series of solos but rather « a trio of solos » in which « each piece is only possible through the gaze of the others ».
« The beings on stage » – presence – are also at the core of Faustin Linyekula’s work. You will no doubt remember his stunning creation, « Tales Off the Mud Wall », in which he was immobile on stage for a considerable time with his knees bended and back arched in the image of a madman … or a wise man. His grounded body is unspeakably present amid the moving dancers. In « Triptyque sans titre » (Triptych without a title), Linyekula takes over the space. He traverses it in lightning solos that are like desperate incantations. His dancing, which is quite unique with its fluid yet violent spirals, springs from somewhere far away, deep within. « What is a body that moves and breathes to those that are watching it? » wonders the choreographer*. He wrote of his last piece, « Who will lend me the right words to describe the smoke from the lamps that burn in the night, the smell of beer and urine in the bars of Matongé, the sequins worn by the prostitutes and the Rumba singers’ torpor, a beaten-up old taxi and hoards of people walking in the morning mist? The racket in my head … The rust in my blood … And if it had no name? »
Freedom of expression: a conscious decision
There is nothing fake, easy or predictable about Linyekula’s work. After « Spectacularly Empty » in 2001 (cf. Africultures 42 and 45), « Triptych sans titre » is the continuation of his « journal of a journey back to my homeland » – the Democratic Republic of Congo – where he returned to live two years ago. The country is in ruins, ravaged by seven years of war.
The stage design reflects extreme poverty. There are a few storm lamps on the ground and several large empty cloth sacks like those used for food aid from rich countries. There are five dancers on stage. Linyekula plays the role of Kabako, a young man with a thin dry body. He is almost naked except for a few sheets of newspaper around his waist. A couple is dressed in a Western style and two disturbing characters that are often covered seem to represent power – both political and religious.
In the middle, sitting on the floor, is a DJ hunched over his table, as if he had been plucked from a Parisian nightclub. Like the musicians in « Weeleni« , his unmoving presence is questioning. He is in such contrast with the moving bodies that they seem to come from different worlds. And yet, his electronic music, which is deafening and discordant, plunges us straight into a typical « Kin-la-Folie » environment with its mix of joy and violence, drunkenness and despair.
« Triptych sans titre » manages to unsettle us. Faustin Linyekula does not try to put on a « beautiful » performance but rather a real performance that talks about his « walk through the ruins of his homeland ». The piece is swarming with images and emotions that hover between dream and reality – a couple that wants each other and tries to flee, a night-time ceremony in which the shadows sing and dance in a circle, a dead body in a sack that a woman is carrying on her shoulder. This piece is a way, way off the beaten track. The choreography is anything but expected. Linyekula asserts his personal style, which has nothing to do with the usual labels. There is absolutely no question of his « making it African » to please a given audience. This young 28 year-old choreographer is seeking, testing and daring with incredible strength and commitment. It is the freedom that he asserts, his refusal to take the easy road, that is still lacking in so many other African choreographers.
Private pain
What is continually striking about « Weeleni, l’appel » and « Triptych sans titre » is the shared expression of private pain. This is no superficial sentiment portrayed by the violence of the movements but rather a darker, inner pain that courses in their veins.
In his solo entitled « Gestes » (gestures), Salia Sanou dances with his back to the audience. His step, the ragged movements of his back and shoulders gradually accelerate until they are fraught with tension. As with so many gestures that call out, cry out in despair. However, not once does the dancer show his face to the public – as if the pain were too deep to be shared.
This impression of repressed emotion, which rises from the very core of the dancer’s being, culminates in Seydou Boro’s solo, « Femininmasculin ». This provides a moment of grace in which the tall athletic dancer sheds his mask to reveal an unimaginable frailty.
In Faustin Linyekula’s work also, violence is an internal tidal wave that destroys the boundaries between dreams and reality, engulfing the characters and separating them. While apparently contrasting, both choreographies place the individual and his interiority at the heart of the piece. They are anything but empty stereotypes. Both pieces succeed in expressing the complexity of the private world, with a fascinatingly controlled energy. Yes, Africa is present but it is above all the naked truth of the individual characters that touches us – their bodies in movement.

A booklet has recently been published about Faustin Linyekula’s work entitled, Faustin Linyekula, danseur-chorégraphe, Les carnets de la Création series, Editions de l’œil, Montreuil, 2002, 25p., 5.50 euros. ///Article N° : 5658


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