at the Auditorium Theatre

October 25 and 26

An avalanche of color, a hailstorm of sound, a kaleidoscope of bodies–that’s African dance as performed by Les Ballets Africains. Intensely theatrical, beautifully staged, their show is nevertheless as fresh as a good-sized gale off the lake. The performers project up a storm, but they make a joke of showing off–and in the process reduce the distance between us and them to a matter of inches, not hundreds of yards. That’s something in a house as big as the Auditorium.

Les Ballets Africains was formed in 1952, and became the national dance troupe of the Republic of Guinea in 1958 when Guinea gained independence. It makes only limited claims to authenticity, and no bones about that fact. Louise Bedichek argues in an exceptionally intelligent program note that authentic African dance is ritual, and that genuine religious ritual has no place in the theater. Les Ballets Africains bases its dances and narratives on traditional forms, but it also drastically cuts and freely combines the dances and stories of different peoples. What we see onstage is not what Guineans see and do at home.

I’d love to see what Guineans do at home. Dance is a way of life in Africa–many ordinary people there dance every day. But Les Ballets Africains offers its own distinct pleasures. The dancers and musicians are professionals, chosen by audition and then trained for years; they are very good at what they do. And the people who put this performance together clearly have a lot of theatrical savvy. The two hours went by in a blur.

The drums are the great pumping heart of African dance; appropriately, Les Ballets Africains opened with Rhythms of Africa. Nine musicians and 24 dancers play a variety of instruments: a giant drum, the doun doun, big enough to be ridden like a horse; several higher-pitched hand-held drums; hollowed logs that seem to speak above the din; melancholy horns; and, to make sure no aural corner is left unfilled, shakers and rattles and bells. Melodies and harmonies appear and disappear, instruments are featured and dropped, and the patterns that evolve are as unpredictable and right as the shifting sounds of rain and thunder in a violent storm. But a lot louder. Imagine the sweep of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky’s savagery combined with the sense of conversation in good jazz playing.

The next piece, African Dawn, opens with still more instruments. A man strolls onstage singing and playing a flute literally in the same breath; two more play huge balaphones (a precursor of the xylophone); and a fourth enters with a delicate-voiced kora, sort of a giant mandolin. A dozen women in brilliant, flowing caftans sing and dance; both voices and upper bodies seem to scoop the air, rhythmically, repetitively, soothingly. When the women turn, their singing fades in and out with a circular motion like the turning of their bodies. Playful, laughing, they seem agog at the big man with the phallic kora. Music and dance, man and women together create a magical sense of calm and well-being.

The dances that follow are stately in a way we don’t always associate with African dance. Several men carrying five-foot poles sashay about the stage as elegantly as Astaire with his cane, accenting a turn by holding a pole horizontally at the nape of the neck or twirling the sticks as they skip. But stepping side to side they add a little bump and grind you’d never see from Astaire. The women’s dancing is also relatively slow and courtly, with a deliberate small hunching of the shoulders or virtuosic isolations: shimmying shoulders and slow-stepping legs. Men and women dance together in the section that concludes African Dawn, clearly a dance of courtship, of confrontation, play, and reconciliation.

Extensive program notes describe the dances and stories in some detail, but in a way they’re superfluous: the performers communicate with complete clarity. The next dance, The Bell of Hamana, tells a story that celebrates kindness and reverence for the forest and for all life; a good man receives a bell from a tortoise, the ruler of the forest, as his reward. That narrative sets the stage for various dances of celebration: dances performed at baptisms, as puberty rites, on the occasion of a good harvest.

Here men and women dance nothing alike. Women, lighter and looser, often move as if jointless and with a continual breathtaking speed, rubbery arms and legs flailing. But what looks uncontrolled is not; the women may seem deeply absorbed in a continuous loop of motion, almost entranced, but they can stop, simultaneously and with a shout in unison, on a single drumbeat–as if some machine going full-throttle has been switched off. Carried on men’s shoulders, women don’t pose as ballerinas might but continue to dance, swinging wildly, even tumbling backward into kamikaze falls, their legs around the men’s shoulders. Whereas in Balanchine’s choreography different groups or individuals express different lines in the music, in African dance each woman seems to express the whole percussive symphony herself. What’s mesmerizing are the women’s simultaneous integrations and isolations of the body, the way the motions of a single person can reflect the music at every moment.

The men’s dancing exploits their greater strength, their large-muscle control and coordination. And men are more apt to dance alone, challenging each other to ever-greater feats of athleticism. A group of smaller men tumble and leap, sometimes alone, sometimes in an astoundingly precise unison. Consecutive barrel turns in a circle prove that most ballet dancers have nothing on these guys; those turns are repeated closer to the floor, elbows touching the ground. With apparent ease they do flips without hands, flips back and forth from hands to feet, somersaults in which the head and hands are uninvolved. A group of larger and older-looking men dance differently: each has a highly specialized talent. One vibrates his entire torso so that the flesh shivers and shimmies in rapid currents. Another whose head sits loosely on his neck sends into orbit a ball on a string attached to his beanie. What’s difficult to convey about these feats is how musical they are, how they blend into the dance; everything is done in rhythm with the drums.

The Bell of Hamana was the high point of the concert for me; by the time it was over I had a huge grin plastered across my face. By comparison the two pieces after intermission were somewhat disappointing. Malissadio is primarily a narrative dance, and though the story is a tragic one, the acting is so broad–and perhaps the culture is so distant–that no sense of tragedy comes across. Western-style bows at the end strike an odd note, and the musicians’ playing seems purposely subdued, the music itself almost sentimental. The concert finale, which returns us to the more abstract pleasures of African dance, has the tone and episodic structure of a circus. Feats of strength and daring abound: A single man stands holding two others on his shoulders while he supports two more, one on each side, in his arms. Another man towers on stilts at least twice the length of his body: impossibly, he’s dancing–swaying, even lifting one “leg” high.

Les Ballets Africains ends the concert as it began: the drummers beat their hearts out, filling up the stage, the air, our bodies. At their best, African dance and music provide an experience of such plenitude that I can’t find the words, can’t pile up enough metaphors, to convey it. I can only say that African dancers seem to feast on their music in a way our culture only dimly understands, let alone encourages. As any observer of babies knows, dancing is as natural as talking. But you have to practice. These people have practiced well.