The African King | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The African King 

Les Ballets Africains turns 13th-century folklore into high-energy performance.

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For more than 50 years, Les Ballets Africains'the Republic of Guinea’s national dance company, which was first formed in Paris in 1952 by Guinean choreographer Keita Fodeba'has captivated audiences from Berlin to Moscow. It is well documented that after the curtain falls on the troupe’s performances, audiences often erupt into thunderous applause, sustained standing ovations and boisterous requests for encores. Which, of course, begs the question: Why do audiences worldwide unabashedly adore Les Ballets Africains?


British production manager Tim Speechley'who has toured with Les Ballets Africains for nearly 18 years'says it is the sheer energy that pulses from the stage when the performers are in action. “During the course of a performance, the audience will sometimes rise to their feet and even begin to move around a bit. Afterwards, people tell me they feel as if they’ve had a great workout just watching the dancers and musicians. … It’s a difficult thing to understand or explain unless you’ve actually experienced it. It’s very vibrant and visceral,” Speechley said.


Some prospective audience members are misled by the troupe’s name. Les Ballets Africains is by no means a classical-ballet company. French-speaking Fodeba dubbed his company The African Dancers, and ballet is simply the French word for dance. As far as movement is concerned, West African dance and classical ballet are polar opposites. If classical ballet is a disciplined, determined plume of smoke slowly rising from a stick of incense and gracefully hanging in the air, then West African dance is a fierce red firecracker exploding in the sky.


Speechley speculates that Les Ballets Africains’s 2007 production Mémoire du Manding'which integrates historical facts and folklore to chronicle the life of a 13th-century West African king who, despite derision, overcomes a disability to become one of the region’s most celebrated rulers'is certainly one of the troupe’s most faced-paced, high-energy works to date. That may be because newly appointed Artistic Director Hamidou Bangoura hails from a region of Guinea notorious for especially frenzied drum beats and dance moves.


Speechley explains that where music and dance are concerned, there is great variation in West Africa, and even within the country of Guinea. Neighboring Ghana produces mostly slower, more rhythmic music and dance, while most of the stuff in Guinea is very fast-paced.


“Dance is part of daily life there,” Speechley continues. “There are no formal dance schools because the women grab megaphones and everybody, young and old, just joins in a circle and dances out in the streets.nn

Although the Republic of Guinea is experiencing unrest, the country has essentially remained stable in the precarious and sometimes volatile region of West Africa, making it a safe haven for musicians, dancers and other artists from neighboring countries that have experienced marked upheaval, like Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. The influx of different cultural influences has caused some minor tempo mutations to appear in Guinea’s dance steps and drum beats, a few of which may surface in Mémoir du Manding.


In the absence of formal performing arts schools, throngs of musicians and dancers who aspire to join Les Ballets Africains flock to Conakry (Guinea’s capital city) to participate in annual American Idol-style auditions judged by Bangoura and choreographer Sekou Conde. No comment on whether Bangoura or Sekou’s post-audition comments are as brutally frank as Idol judge Simon Cowell’s.


Les Ballets Africains boasts 50 members, but only 25-30 lucky souls tour internationally. When Conde occasionally feels that the troupe needs some additional regional spice, he combs the West African countryside in search of talented performers living in obscurity in remote villages who are possessed of exuberance, uncanny agility and flair.


“It’s a high honor to be a professional dancer in Guinea. … It makes your whole family and community look good, so there are a lot of people who would like to be part of Les Ballets Africains,” Speechley says.


Speechley notes that, unlike many North American and European dance companies, Les Ballets Africains does not exclusively court dancers in their teens and early 20s, but actively searches out and welcomes older dancers. One of the troupe’s current stars is a 55-year-old woman who has proved to be an inexhaustible powerhouse on tour. Although explosive, evocative West African dance is certainly the main attraction, in the same manner that a live classical opera performance isn’t exclusively about music, a Les Ballets Africains performance is not exclusively about dance. Every production features a variety of different theatrical elements such as lavish costumes, acrobatics and live drumming and accompaniment from other traditional African instruments, which are meant to create a more vivid, engaging sensory experience for the audience.


“We haven’t been out very long,” says Speechley, “but, so far, the reception to Mémoire du Manding has been very favorable. Every night, people have been on their feet.nn

Les Ballets Africains
nKingsbury Hall
n1395 E. Presidents Circle
nSaturday, Feb. 24
n7:30 p.m.

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Jennifer Poplar

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