Les Ballets Africains in Mandinka Memories (Irvine Barclay Theatre, February 20, 2007)
To be able to tell a story through dance is a marvelous thing, whether the storytellers are of the tights-and-tutus variety, or, as in the case of Guinea’s Les Ballets Africains, something entirely different. In their 55 years of existence they’ve brought the pure primal beauty of West African dance (as well as a degree of contemporary dance that’s clearly African-influenced) to the world.
Their current production, Mandinka Memories, utilizes not only dance but also song and dynamic drumming to tell the story of the ascent of King Soundiata Keita in 13th century Mali. Born with paralyzed legs, Soundiata overcomes this handicap through both human and supernatural healing interventions of music and dance.
Alternately sublime and spectacular, the first act of the show relates the tale via ornate costuming, thrilling drum and dance displays and strolling kora-wielding singers spreading the news. A revitalized Soundiata and his followers defeat the ruthless King Sosso Soumaoro Kante in battle and a new era of united kingdoms in Mali begins.
In Act II, it’s celebration time. The balafon previously only heard is now center stage, as is the reinforced battery of drums and percussion that had been relegated to stage right in Act I. The dancers, male and female, execute movements that at times seem physically impossible- rapid gyrations, aerodynamic kicks, multiple handsprings, gravity-defying leaps and meticulous displays of grace and balance that wouldn’t be out of place in a completely modern context.
Riveted throughout the performance along with the rest of the audience, I nonetheless managed the presence of mind to join in a richly deserved standing ovation following the thunderous finale.
An amazing evening to say the least, and not one I’ll soon forget. (Some Mandinka Memories of my own, as it happens.) And I’d be remiss not to give further mention to the Irvine Barclay Theatre, located in the Southern California city of Irvine. They’ve previously featured such world music events as Putumayo’s Women of Latin America tour and performers from the Fez Festival of Sacred Music. The near future will see them hosting the Soweto Gospel Choir on April 14th.