Friday, March 07, 2008

Film Review: Sand, Drum & Shostakovich

This documentary explores contemporary dance in Africa. It introduces eight modern dance companies; Compagnie Danse Nyata-Nyata (Congo/Canada), Compagnie Vincent Mantsoe (South Africa), Compagnie Cie Salia Nï Seydou (Burkina Faso), Compagnie Sylvain Zabli (Ivory Coast), Compagnie Tchétché (Ivory Coast), Companhia Clara Andermatt (Cape Verde/Portugal), Compagnie Mathlide Monnier (France/Burkina Faso/Mali), Compagnie Jant-Bi (Senegal/Germany), all participants at the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse in Montreal, Canada in 1999.

The film opens with a powerful visual image on a blackened stage. Cinematography, lighting, costumes, and sets add to the overall effect. African dancers from Mathlide Monnier enter the stage seemingly from all directions; some might have descended from Heaven, performing acrobatic and rhythmic dances. The chiseled dancers defying gravity on film would make anyone head to the nearest gym and then on to an African dance class. Continuing with the opening sequence, there's a dancer from Companhia Clara Andermatt standing in front of a metallic door of what might appear to be an exclusive club, save for the fact that he's topless, barefoot and wearing a pair of body-conscious shorts. He isn't there to exclude anyone; he's there to welcome the audience to a multi-ethnic dance and drum jamboree. The film is narrated in French and English by various choreographers, artistic directors and noted writers as snapshots of performances that are seen later in their entirety phase in and out of focus.

The theatre audience at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center shifted in their collective seats, not knowing what to expect as sounds of African drums poured from the speakers. African dance involves every fiber of the human body, as demonstrated by solo performers and groups. African dance has endured for many years, and has been embraced by modern dancers who have meshed their influences to create a valuable gift to their ancestors. Traditional dances have not been abandoned; they have been enriched by collaboration between the western world and African dance into a hybrid that is not exclusively western or African. From the joint efforts both have a stake in keeping the history in tact and an evolving dream alive.

In Africa, there are over fifty countries and every country has more than two-to- three thousand dances. It is clear to see that a single African dance does not exist. In the film, illustrated maps of Africa guide the viewer along the journey of African dance history, including its modern collaboration of dancers, drummers, musicians, and guest choreographers.

The film also explores the spirituality inherent in African dance. Sand is very important in African culture as a reminder that one comes from the ground and will return to the earth. The fragility and strength of the human body and soul are demonstrated by the use of sand. In one of the performances, three dancers from Compagnie Cie Salia Nï Seydou are seated on stage mimicking each other's moves as they contemplate the depth of friendship. One of the dancers sifts sand through his hands like a rope pulling him forward in time, toward his inevitable death. Later, sand is poured over the head of another dancer in the company until he's completely covered, an hourglass turned upside. The screen fades to black.

Dancers are aware of negotiating the space in which they perform which acknowledges and pays homage to their ancestors. Dancing is therapeutic: healing to the mind, body, and soul. Music is an important accompaniment to the dancers on stage, communicating on various planes, transmitting and receiving different messages, which are transferred to the bodies of the dancers. There's an internal connection between the dancers and musicians, witnessed by a similar call-and-response in African-American churches.

Masculinity and femininity are woven into the texture of the film as the viewers are challenged to address the stereotypical roles men and women are relegated to in African society. Compagnie Tchétché, an all-female company, has explored the dynamics of female solidarity through the use of improvisation and theme. Béatrice Kombé, choreographer, set out to create a piece about the sensitivity of African women as they step outside of their expected roles of wife and mother.

One outstanding concept is an outreach program sponsored by Compagnie Sylvain Zabli. The project trains street kids in music and dance, and then sends them back out into the community to teach others what they have learned. The lives of the participants are changed upon completion of the program; they leave the program with a new skill, no longer having to live on the streets and follow destructive life paths.

As depicted in this film, African dance is dramatic, animated, spiritual, and verbal. It educates as it tells a story and builds bridges between communities and cultures. Westerners at first don't have enough expressive emotional means to perform African dance, while in Africa, there is an enormous palette for expression. Westerners usually have to be taught to free their body in order to appreciate the levels of African dance, whereas Africans are more naturally free and expressive in their movement.

In the final performance of the film the viewer is treated to the unexpected. Men from Compagnie Jant-Bi are dressed in designer suits dancing to traditional drum music until the advent of a Shostakovich string quartet. The company demonstrates that it's possible to perform African dance in sand to classical music, thus bringing home its universal appeal and adaptability. Despite outside influences, African dance will remain African.

For more information on the film, visit the web site: Kino Dance.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Writers Working For Free & Clips

I am so exhausted from the all the online ads seeking writers to work for free from would-be literary, cultural, or urban magazines. This video clip featuring Harlan Ellison best answers the question: Should writers work for free? Warning: Some of the language might offend those with delicate ears.