When most people think of African dance they imagine celebratory, picture-postcard ritualized movements—swooping arms, undulant shoulders, thundering foot-stamps. But there's a revolutionary cadre of vital contemporary African performing artists, like BÉatrice KombÉ's Compagnie TchÉTchÉ and Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula (who was here for the TBA Festival in '05) who are reframing our ideas about the soul of modern Africa. "Dance unites the people," says BÉatrice KombÉ. In the face of struggle, suffering, brutality, violence and neglect toward women and children, a sea of war orphans and the daily spectre of AIDS and famine, "It's a healing [balm] for people who sometimes don't agree. It gives joy back to the people."
BÉatrice KombÉ's Compagnie TchÉTchÉ (which means "eagle" in the BÉtÉ language) is the first all-female dance troupe from Abidjan, CÔte d'Ivoire, and they deliver not only joy, but muscular, bold choreography full of power, purpose and beauty. And it hasn't been an easy road. Stretching the boundaries of cultural tradition and seeking a new expressive grammar means finding new sources, like Western contemporary dance, and possibly confounding audiences' preconception of "Africanness." Linyekula noted that "they come with an expectation of what an African dance piece should look like, who an African should be." That can mean that the warmth and joy of traditional forms swiftly turns a corner toward a measured ferocity that menaces any happy-go-lucky folk expectations an audience might have. And that's just what Compagnie TchÉTchÉ do in their evening-length piece "Dimi" ("women's pain" in the West African language of MalinkÉ).
With brilliant focus and conviction, the four-member company weaves a mesmerizing spectacle of danger, ritual, stillness, sorrow and a celebration of women's strength that is as challenging as it beautiful.
Instead of a mere exoticized fusion, Kombe's weaving of West African and angular, at times even introspective, postmodernism is as honest, complex and unexpectedly vibrant as a piece of finely crafted batik. Western artists (like Ronald K. Brown and Katherine Dunham) have accomplished the reverse—infusing modern dance with Afro-Caribbean spirit, but it's a fascinating twist to see postmodern dance as a borrowed idiom—regifted and presented in such a dazzling display. This is an islandscape that is, to quote the poet Ted Berrigan, "feminine, marvelous and tough," where visceral African ritual dance dissipates and co-opts an urgent postmodern dance sensibility that produces a measured, fearful quality that is evocative, even haunting. There is nothing folksy or primitive about their explosive power; this is rigorous, unforgettable, deeply African contemporary dance.
Portland State University, Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. 790-2787/245-1600, Ext. 201. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 7-9. $25 adults ($14 students and seniors)