by Cameron Boyle
I was moved by this deeply personal work which pits ancestry against aspiration to explore the delicate balance between maintaining ties and seeking new homes free from creative and political intolerance. It is "Yimbégré" ("beginning") performed by Souleymane "Solo" Badolo (master dancer and choreographer from Burkina Faso) and Sylvestre Koffitse Akakpo-Adzaku (master dancer and choreographer from Togo). Solo is the recipient of the 2015 Harkness Dance Residence at the BAM Fisher. Solo, as resident artist, was commissioned to conceptualize, choreograph and perform a piece as part of Global BAM's "Muslim Stories: Global to Local"--a two-year initiative that features performances produced by artists from contemporary Muslim cultures and communities. I deeply appreciate BAM's mission statement about this program: "We believe that performance is an ideal entry point for cross-cultural exploration and that providing context for artists, art forms, and perspectives is key to enhancing understanding....'Muslim Stories' brings to life the cultural diversity and complexity of the Muslim world through its rich contemporary art forms, too long ignored in our country."
The piece shows Brooklyn-based Solo as an artist beginning to exercise personal freedom—-yet often at the expense of familial roots. Burkinabé master drummer Mamoudou Konate, pushes the traditional into modern modes of expression as he provides percussive accompaniment to the dancers' movement which begins in innate gesture and progresses urgently toward the new, always remaining conscious of where it is going, and what it is leaving behind. Mamoudou occupies the center of the stage, seated and surrounded by an array of percussive gourds, some of which are half-filled with water. Through dance, percussion, spoken word and song, the "conversation" among the three performers is also a play on the dynamics that exist in their long-term friendship. Solo is "messing" with Sylvestre; Mamoudou supports what Solo says and adds a bit more sarcasm. They each have a different take on the expressions they are using--"don't put hot peppers in my mouth" meaning don't twist my words or don't put words in my mouth or this is the sting of gossip.
Sylvestre's character embodies young male bravado, sometimes mixing traditional African dance with crotch-grabbing hip-hop moves. He is fiercely assimilating and establishing his own immigrant identity, resistant to being stuck in traditional ways. Solo's character is softer, wiser, more grounded and in keeping with the traditions of the motherland. The interplay of their energies and identities--sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony--is fascinating and reflects my own observations of the dilemmas immigrants from traditional cultures often face. The last scene ends with the three characters joking with and making fun of each other; the ultimate message, after water is dumped from a gourd onto Sylvestre's head, is that we mustn't, regardless of our trajectory or station in life, take ourselves too seriously. The best unscripted part of the performance was the periodic spontaneous laughter that came from a French boy in the audience....he knew the moral of "the story" better than anyone!
Thank you BAM for your socially and globally conscious programming; thank you Solo for inspiring us with your life experience translated into performance art; thank you Sylvestre for your soulful interpretation of the themes; and thank you Mamoudou for being the percussive narrator of the STORY!