at the Auditorium Theatre

December 11, 12, and 13

The National Dance Company of Senegal puts on a show that redefines theatricality. The costumes, the musical instruments, the performers’ bravura all seem to say: take delight in human ingenuity–in color, light, sound, illusion. Going to see this troupe, Senegal’s official dance company for nearly 30 years, is a little like attending a play, an art exhibit, and the circus all at once. It’s also a little like going to a party where you not only don’t know anyone but can’t speak the language. You can catch the goodwill, you can catch the sex, but the nuances are way beyond you.

I suppose the Western art form this performance most resembles is opera: at least some of the dances tell a story, and the dancers often sing, to each other and to the audience. And yet it also recalls the cabaret atmosphere of flamenco: the dancers drum, the drummers dance, and dancers onstage become part of the audience, enthusiastic observers as well as participants. The seated audience even gets into the act: at one point the houselights were turned up, the performers advanced, clapping and drumming, to the front of the stage, and some audience members danced, West African-style, up and down the aisles. I’d never seen the beautiful, staid old Auditorium jump like this before.

The images are astounding. A giant broom whirls like a dervish onto the stage, the dancer underneath entirely concealed by masses of long, soft, cottony ropes that swing, sway, flounce, and sweep the floor. Quite apart from the mystery and humor of a broom dancing is the magic of the object itself; and you understand the young child’s response to any kind of fascinating new thing: What is it? I want to see it! A man walked and even danced on stilts, twice as tall as anyone else onstage. Another man draped himself over a huge bowl, stomach down, and set himself to spinning until he was going so fast you lost any sense of his humanity: he was simply an exotic shape, blurred by speed.

The costumes were less like clothes than works of art. Color–ranging from the garish to the subtle–was only the beginning. Dancers were adorned with swinging rainbow-colored pom-poms looking like bedspread fringe gone berserk, with coins, fluffy balls of cotton, horned headdresses, “skirts” for their calves. They wore things that rustled, that dangled, that quivered, that clinked, that swished (so that even the costumes made music). The musical instruments themselves are works of art–outlandish in shape, much wilder than necessary for the mere making of noise. One guitarlike instrument had a geometric design of metal studs over the sounding box that flashed like a constellation.

And this was the first performance of any kind I’d ever attended that stimulated the audience’s sense of smell. Sitting 20 rows back from the stage, we caught the spicy scent of human bodies hard at work.

Of course certain elements tie this exotic performance to other theatrical traditions. Here as elsewhere, drama interpreted the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. Ho Mbite Kam Serere celebrates the harvest with wrestling matches. In Khady Kebe a bride is poisoned on her wedding day. This is less the groom’s personal tragedy (as it might have been in a Western interpretation) than a communal, public tragedy: the groom doesn’t grieve alone, or even in the midst of a sympathetic community–all community members are shocked by and mourn her death equally.

Other differences distinguish this from Western dance and drama. Men and women rarely dance together–I wouldn’t describe any of what I saw as a duet. Instead men dance as a group, and women as a group–often, however, for the benefit of the opposite sex. In the finale the women dance naked from the waist up–and I must say it’s an improvement over flesh-colored leotards. I would have hazarded that bare breasts would be a distraction–and they were for a few minutes–but after that they became just another part of the female body, in movement a soft blurring of the female torso.

Drums provided almost the entire musical accompaniment. (Other instruments were played during musical “interludes” that separated the dance numbers.) To see a whole evening of dance to drums alone confirmed my belief that at its most elemental, dance is about percussion and rhythm and little else. Theories aside, it was pure pleasure to see and hear these drummers. Their music was subtle, nuanced–a kind of percussive symphony, given the variety of instruments and playing styles.

West African dance, at first, can seem foreign. And because it’s unfamiliar, it’s easy to recognize only the elements that are familiar and to fall back on stereotypes. My first impression was that I was watching awkward and artless folk dance. We carry around with us, probably as a legacy from ballet, this image of what a dancer should look like: erect carriage, back like a poker; shoulders open to expose the chest; chin up to expose the throat; legs and arms generally extended as fully as possible, right down to pointing toes and reaching fingers. The typical West African stance violates almost every one of those conventions. The dancers are often in a slight crouch, their legs a little (or a lot) splayed, their ankles and wrists flexed, their heads up to see the audience but jutting forward over their curved bodies.

I’m still as ignorant of the theoretical principles of West African dance as ever, but I ended up utterly impressed by these dancers’ skill and ebullience. They beat the floor with their bare feet, double-time, triple-time, quadruple-time for all I know. And they achieved a kind of suspension I’ve never seen in Western dance: torsos and heads hovered motionless in the air while arms and legs flailed at amazing speeds. The dancers looked like hummingbirds.

There was less head swinging and hip shaking than I’d expected, but what there was surpassed any jazz-dance versions of these movements I’ve seen. At one point a woman wearing a cone-shaped headdress with a big, fluffy ball at the tip knelt and flung her head back and forth, the ball describing and visually extending that rapid arc. Then she stopped–boom, just like that–and her look at the audience said: See? This frenzy is my art, and it’s for you.

The moment that expressed the concert most fully for me was accidental. A bright orange fiber had been shaken loose from a dancer’s grass skirt and was floating aimlessly around the stage. My attention was riveted, and when I switched my focus from the bit of airborne fluff back to the dancers I realized why: it was the contrast between that purposeless, accidental movement and the force of the human invention and will gathered onstage. If you were looking for a way to celebrate the season, there was none better last Saturday night.