- Souleymane Badolo in New York City
Souleymane Badolo is speaking to us. Mid-way through a solo he performed at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre this past June, Solo, as he is known among friends, walked to the front of the stage and addressed the audience. "Banichait!" he repeated, hands beckoning urgently for us to follow. He retreated slowly as he spoke, drawing viewers deeper into the atmosphere he had created through sound design, music, movement, and language. Clearly not the roar of the Big Apple, the urban noises of sputtering motorbikes and children playing evoked his home city of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Elongated arm gestures gave way to footwork that remained close to the ground, casual yet precise, supported by quiet, rhythmic clicking. While Badolo projects a spectrum of qualities, glibness is not one of them. Instead, he insists, almost admonishes, grounding his message in his sturdy physicality—closely cut hair, square shoulders and hips, the body of a pugilist. Still speaking, he backed up to sit on a metal chair. A flow of words in Gurunsi, his native language, ensued. We could not understand what he was saying, but strained to hear it all the same.
Badolo is among a small number of contemporary African dance artists currently circulating in the United States. This year finds him in a pivotal transition. In September 2009, he moved from Ouagadougou to Brooklyn to be with his wife of two years, Zimbabwean dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire. With the move, he redirected his career, including expanding his professional network, formerly in Africa and Europe, to U.S. venues such as La MaMa, which with its limited resources for international work could only have presented him because he lives nearby. On a less tangible level, he has immersed himself in an entirely new aesthetic and cultural milieu. With the La MaMa appearance, he was at the heart of the beast: the downtown dance world of New York City.
As Badolo spoke, a cell phone rang. Its owner answered it. "Hello?" she mumbled from a back row. People around me gasped. All noise is perceptible in an audience numbering around thirty. We assumed she would quickly end the call. "Hunh," she continued. Heads whipped wildly around in disbelief. Distracted, we waited for her [End Page 39] to hang up. Badolo continued speaking. "Hunh, un hunh," she muttered again. Her appalling rudeness led Nicky Paraiso, a La MaMa curator, to stride halfway up the stairs on the opposite side of the house and spit across the seats in a forceful whisper, "Put that phone away!" We heard nothing more from her after that.
Unfazed, Badolo pressed on. He was performing in the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, on a program spotlighting contemporary Italian choreographers. Given that he is West African and not Italian, his presence was bewildering in a lineup that also included gold-flecked costuming, flour and water dusted over bodies, and nudity—spectacle reminiscent of the renowned Italian director Romeo Castellucci, but lacking his skill and depth. Hastily translated, Badolo's bio added to the alterreality of his appearance, relaying, "In 1993, she founded the company Kongo Ba Teria …" and "In 1997, she gained international success as a dancer in performances of Fignito by Cie Salia ni Seydou." Clearly, the translator had difficulty identifying the gender of "Souleymane."
Among other things, the mistranslations and lapses in attention that occurred at La MaMa reflect the downtown dance community's grappling with a new presence. Disorientation can occur on both sides. What is lost for an artist in the familiarity of his home country is gained in fresh ideas and opportunities and the potential for greater visibility. Still getting to know the community he has entered, however, the artist may face the unexpected challenge of framing his ideas for new venues and audiences. The audience, in turn—good willing, and yet struggling to fill in meaning where literacy is lacking—may not yet be totally in tune with what is being said. Because we rarely see contemporary African dance in New York, we do not know all of the cultural and aesthetic histories that inform the work of artists like...