This year's PuSh Festival represents a long overdue milestone: our first presentation of work from the continent of Africa. Faustin Linyekula is a dancer and storyteller who heads Studios Kabako, based in Kisangani, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is in town with the solo Le Cargo, a co-presentation with The Dance Centre that runs through this Saturday.
The piece begins with Linyekula entering from the backstage wings carrying a small wooden stool and two books. He walks downstage and pauses before a microphone; a laptop computer is on the floor before his feet. Then comes an invocation, spoken almost as much to reassure the performer as to inform the audience: "I am Kabako. It is me, Kabako. Again Kabako. Always Kabako." Sitting down on the stool, Linyekula tells us that he is an internationally acclaimed storyteller, but that tonight he has come "simply to dance." However, that task proves anything but simple, as how and what to dance involves the recovery of a kinaesthetic repertoire long buried in his body and his imagination.
At first, as Linyekula tells us, he had thought that he could relearn to dance by seeking the answer in books. But he does not find his answer there. That is because he wants to dance the dances he remembers from his childhood, the ones performed at night that, having been sent to bed, he was not supposed to have watched. And so begins the journey back to Obilo, the town where Linyekula's father worked as a primary schoolteacher, served as the local choirmaster, and tended goal for the soccer team. It is thus fitting that Linyekula, unable to afford the time needed to make the trip by rail, is driven to Obila on the back of his father's motorcycle.
It is only at this point that Linyekula begins to dance--in a diagonal shaft of light coming from a shin positioned stage left. His body, too, seems tilted on an axis, bent at the hips, the head and torso angling forward, legs and feet driving to the floor. Later, Linyekula will dance in a circle of illuminated shins stage right, swinging his pelvis backwards and forwards in the fast-paced manner many of us may be familiar with via various images of dance ethnography from Africa, but that for Linyekula is very specifically associated with the Congolese dance form of Ndombolo. Even here, however, audience members might, given certain preconceived expectations, be surprised at the overall spareness and contained exuberance of Linyekula's dancing.
I would hazard to say that this is for two reasons. First, Linyekula's recovery of these dances necessarily becomes an elegy for a lost tradition. Back in Obilo, with a Christian evangelicalism having swept through the town, ritual dancing and drumming of the sort Linyekula is interested in reviving has been ruled satanic; as a result, the choreographer has to call upon drummers from an adjacent village. Then, too, the hybrid form of Le Cargo subtly upends our disciplinary expectations. In the piece, despite telling us otherwise, Linyekula spends as much, if not more, time telling stories as he does dancing--to the point where a recorded loop of his live narration at the beginning of the show becomes the score to his movement at the end. However, in this merging--which is also accompanied by a slideshow of images that loops on the laptop computer--what we are being let in on is something we should have been aware of from the very beginning: dance is storytelling and storytelling is dance.
And, in hindsight, there is as much to marvel at in Linyekula's delicate movement of his hands and fingers when he is talking to us from his stool at the top of the show as there is in his swinging hips at the end.