- Marche Des Arts Du Spectacle Africain (Masa ‘97)
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What is the place of African culture(s) in the world of contemporary dance and theatre in Africa? What is the relationship for performers between the mastery of the traditional vocabularies and forms of their own ethnic groups and the use of techniques from other cultures? These were two of the central questions debated during MASA ‘97, the third edition of this biannual crossroads for African performing arts. A panoply of over fifty dance, music, and theatre events from twenty African countries was performed at seven different venues, including indoor and outdoor theatres, clubs, concert halls, courtyards, gardens, and a sports stadium. Daily seminars and meetings for participating artists, press, and presenters from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States were also part of the festival.
The dance and theatre performances at MASA showcased material from sixteen countries and revealed that approaches to contemporary performance in Africa vary widely. The composite nature of African performance practice has always been evident, with dance, music, and theatre intermingling. It is common—even imperative—for performers to be conversant in all three disciplines. While some works were narrative and linear, others created a collage, alternating abstract and narrative elements. Subject matter included such diverse themes as the plight of urban African street people, a child’s struggle to restore harmony in her family, and a mother’s lament regarding the losses of war. The works shown by three companies in particular were linked by linear narrative structures and performance time (each lasted about one hour). They also shared an integration of traditional and contemporary dance and theatre vocabularies, fairly extensive reliance on set, lighting, costume, and, in one case, video elements. The performers’ skills in at least two of three disciplines (dance, music, and theatre) were called upon in each of these pieces.
The Tunisian company known as Théâtre Organique presented Tyours Ellil/ Night Birds. This trio for two women and one man unfolded in a simple but suggestive setting: around a phone booth and under a street lamp at night on a narrow city thoroughfare. The story traced the love/hate relationships among a mother, father, stepmother, and daughter. Slipping seamlessly between danced and acted segments, images accrued rapidly—in turn kind, cruel, sensual, or elegiac. Movement, song, violin playing, and short spoken dialogues combined to pose a poignant question about family betrayal: we share space and time, but do we really communicate? Théâtre Organique’s emphasis on physical theatre techniques which yield violent imagery paralleled that of a number of avant-garde companies in Asia, Europe, and the United States.
The Moroccan company Ballet-Théâtre Zinoun presented Psyché Ou La Légende D’Adonis, a revisiting of the Adonis legend in which the balletic movement vocabulary and neoclassical choreographic techniques were interspersed with scenes in which a narrator alternated the words of Arab poets with riffs on his soprano saxophone. His relationship to the dancers vacillated from puppet master to wry commentator. The layering of movement with verbal and musical “stories” was further enriched by a video featuring several of the principal dancers that played periodically on a scrim behind the dance. This video mixed abstract imagery with brief narrative episodes (such as one in which the principal male or female dancer walked into the sea while carrying a suitcase). Each of these devices emphasized some aspect of or commented on the legend. Three characters were pivotal to the success of the work: the narrator, the principal male dancer who represented Adonis, and the principal female dancer who represented the scarlet anemone, the flower begot by the death of Adonis. The dancers in this company were well-schooled in ballet. The narrator was an actor/musician whose chameleon-like persona was well-crafted. The use of physical theatre techniques and a combination of ballet, jazz, and folk dance movement challenged the ensemble. While the...