Through worlds of dance
Full of energetic movement executed by powerful dancers in the full flow of their bodies’ vigor, The Scales of Memory is an 80-minute collaboration by the men of the Senegalese dance company, Compagnie Jant-Bi, and the women of the American dance company, Urban Bush Women. Cross-cultural dance concerts are specialties of both these excellent companies.
“Resistance,” the first of the work’s three parts, began with all the dancers onstage moving slowly forward, occasionally sinking down to the floor or fading back, as if they were traveling through some dense element like water.
A white-turbaned woman appears in their midst; she sings out her name and begins a litany of parents and parents’ parents. Soon, all the dancers are speaking their names and lineage. This is repeated throughout the entire work: individuals break through the movement and the music to speak a name, reiterating a long list of ancestors, weaving the nearly forgotten human past into the moment.
The performance was composed of alternating ensemble and solo pieces, with some narrative told in the individual sections. Most of the choreographic movement was based on that most basic of human actions: walking. The action was exaggerated into shifting and rhythmically dense variations of that basic walking step. Occasionally a movement from a particular dance or martial arts practice would emerge: the flying kicks and twisting leaps of capoeira, or the contractions and releases of Graham technique.
Even so, the choreography was so breathtakingly performed that the viewer’s attention was seized and catapulted into the dancers’ world: physical movement grasped and held the imagination.
Speed and strength
The male dancers of Compagnie Jant-Bi are lithe and willowy, with oodles of tensile and anaerobic strength, and there is no doubt that the Urban Bush Women are heckastrong women. It is a common dance practice in these equality-minded days to have women lift men, but always that is achieved through gravity: using leverage or the already in-flight movement of the male dancer to offset his weight. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the women of Urban Bush could lift—dead weight—most of their male partners. I saw it, I did; it was mind-boggling. As one of the women remarked in the after-performance talk, “we use our warrior side.”
The third section “Love” was the most endearing part of the program, with men and women acting out the mini sexual dramas of the dance club. Women in provocative poses: one in red high heels! The men trying to play it cool, except for the one guy who is all over himself and everyone else in his sexually ecstatic pursuit of his babe of choice. It was a great way to end the evening.
The music, by Fabrice Bouillon, was uniformly wonderful: sound fields of rhythm and everyday sounds from dog barks to the human voice. Because some of the dancers were miked, they could create a rhythm with their feet that then became integral to the music.
Compagnie Jant-Bi is directed by Germaine Acogny, its founder and also the founder and director of its base, L’Ecole des Sables, The International Center for Traditional and Contemporary African Dance, located some 30 miles from Dakar. The granddaughter of a Yoruba priestess, Acogny opened her first studio in 1968; she later joined Maurice Béjart’s project to bring dance education to countries around the world. She also worked with his company in Belgium. In 1995 she returned to Senegal to found L’Ecole des Sables. The students of the school, like those of the company, come from all over Africa.
Urban Bush Women was founded in 1984 by Jawolle Willa Jo Zollar, a Kansas City–born dancer, who has choreographed work for over 30 companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Her awards are numerous. Some of the company’s dancers are from outside the United States, and the company, currently based in Brooklyn, has a taste for international collaboration and performance.
This was a great performance. Both companies deserve worldwide audiences.
Originally published in the Piedmont Post