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Sarah Hart
Performance Reviews
Brooklyn Academy of Music
United States
New York City
New York
Brooklyn, NY

"Les ecailles de la memoire" ("The Scales of Memory")

by Sarah Hart
November 21, 2008
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111
A Collaboration between Urban Bush Women and Compagnie JANT-BI of Senegal.
Choreographed by Germaine Acogny and Jawole Willa Joe Zollar
Four rows of men and women dressed sparsely in brown and grey stand on a dim stage. For a long moment all is silent and still. Then, gradually, the sound of water—of lapping, slapping waves—and very slowly one of the figures crumples to the floor. Another one, very slowly, falls to her knees and bows her head. Another raises one arm and one knee and takes a slow step into space. Another crumples; another steps. Step, bow, fall, step again.

Then, each dancer holds one hand high and one by one, chiming in until the stage thunders with their voices, each proclaims his or her name, then that of his or her parents, then grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on.

The presentness of the past—the long threads of continuity by which the past slides up and assert itself in the lived moments of the present—is the underlying theme of "Les ecailles de la memoire," "The Scales of Memory," a collaboration between Brooklyn's all-female Urban Bush Women and the Senegalese all-male dance troupe Compaignie Jant-Bi. All the dancers are black. The piece is about the historic and ongoing connection between Africans and people of African heritage in North America. The horror of this history, beauty that has flowered from it, the commonality of culture and the uniqueness of individual's lived experience are all themes explored in a series of vignettes that vary widely in tone and subject.

The opening scene ends with six dancers lying parallel, flat on their backs. The whap and gurgle of waves is deafening and the stage is flooded with a poisonous green light. They are in the belly of a ship, that is clear. Suddenly a bright spotlight bursts on from above as if a hatch has opened and daylight is flooding in. But the harsh, focused light also suggests the stab of a policeman's flashlight, or the interior of an old-style prison where rays from a single lofty window illuminate a gloomy cell. This spotlight is a recurring motif and dancers caught in its glare invariably freeze, then contort slowly in postures of extreme agony.

Another recurring motif is breath. It is introduced in a scene danced by the seven men of Jant-Bi. They march onstage wearing bright red shirts. Their movements have a fierce, even violent, energy and when they rip their shirts off and beat the ground with them they appear to be wielding flames. The music is cacophonous, but overpowering it is a loud sound of labored breathing. It's that especially distracting, intimate sound of one's own breath resounding in the skull. The effect is to pull the spectator into the scene, as if into the body of one of the dancers. We are experiencing, not just watching, the chaos. So when suddenly the music stops and the dancers freeze, and all we hear is the layers of bird song, as one does in tropical African forests, it feels like one of those rare moments of sublime, surreal clarity, when one sees the truth of a situation. Then the breath, intimate and loud, yanks us back in.

The relationship between the drama of the world and that of the mind is most powerfully explored in an exceptional sequence featuring Nora Chipaumire, dancer and Associate Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women. Ms. Chipaumire, born in Zimbabwe, is an extraordinary performer. Bald, dark, with timelessly smooth features, she is always a commanding presence on stage. Her every movement resonates with power and grace.

Chipaumire stands on a bench wearing a complex, uncomfortable-looking white gown that engulfs her body but leaves her neck and throat bare. She throws her head back and claws at her face, mouth agape. It is a shocking, visceral depiction of anguish. Then, haltingly, she peels the dress off her shoulder. There is another one underneath it and she peels that off as well. Under the terrible white light, she is the image of utter vulnerability

On either side of her two men dance with backs stooped, their attention to the ground. One hits himself again and again with a club. There's another man dancing in back but he's obscured in darkness. To the left a woman sits motionless with her head on her knees. The music, incorporating discordant outdoor sounds, scraping, and laborious breathing, builds in volume and the overwhelming noise, the frenzied repetition of the dances, the relentless spotlight and a background illumination of sick blue all contribute to a mounting sense of claustrophobia and despair. At one point the dancers thrash helplessly, their arms held as if bound behind their backs.

This scene is about the historic experience of slavery but the trick of the breathing makes it a moment experienced and lived in the present as well. It might be the clamor of memory, images, thoughts and associations pounding in the head of that one dancer sitting so still with her head on her knees.

In the last scene all fourteen dancers stand in a line, but the light is golden now, not ghostly grey, as in the beginning. Again, the dancers call out their names and those of family members. They breath in unison—an audible intake and lifting of ribs, and then a collective relaxing. In unison: "J'accept." I accept.

I wish I could see this dance again and again. Not only because the treatment of the subject is so thought-provoking, but also for sheer thrill. The piece is infused with the exuberance of West African dance—the distinctive sinewy back, wide-planted legs and hips rolling as if on ball joints. It is the nuanced and nimble incorporation of different dance styles, of different emotions—grief and horror, yes, but also humor, sex and joy—that make this piece so good, so interesting, and such a powerful statement our history and culture.
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