Friday, April 26, 2013

Souleymane Badolo and Cynthia Oliver at New York Live Arts

I've always found that I like the encounter with a new or a developing dance to surprise me. I'm neither a prospective presenter nor a funder nor even a prospective ticket-buyer with an unsparing budget. I don't write for the paper of record. Basically, I can go and have fun at these things. So I don't require having things spelled out to me. All of that can be interesting but confounding, too, when you find yourself searching high and low for the specific things you read about. Which is not to say that what you read about isn't there, somewhere, but that sometimes the advance warning gets in the way of live experience, introducing a sense of passive expectation or distracting anticipation. Maybe not knowing is, in the long run, the better path to knowing.

Cynthia Oliver (left) and Leslie Cuyjet in BOOM! (photo by Ian Douglas)
Souleymane Badolo in Buudou, BADOO, BADOLO (photo by Ian Douglas)
This is by way of saying that I'm not sure that I saw the Boom! duet, a seed work choreographed, written and directed by Cynthia Oliver for herself and Leslie Cuyjet, as advertised: "negotiating and renegotiating the rules of personhood, fate and consequence...." and "simultaneously reveals, resists and submits to the structures and shape of a performance."

The fault might be entirely my own, I will admit. But I will also admit to being captivated from the moment I heard an upstairs door bang and the darkened theater's left aisle fill with the bubbling voices of two women as half-bright blotches (the near-invisible dancers wearing over-sized white shirts) descended through the dark towards New York Live Arts' bare space. Once in place, side by side, the women took up that space--expansive in action, splayed off-kilter, owning the land and air rights and, when grounded, gazing sideways like don't-mess-with lions at rest. Hereafter, Oliver and Cuyjet will be "Tried Patience" and "Unwavering Fortitude."

In motion, their confident gestures and phrases seemed like some kind of Black diasporan Tai Chi--an enigmatic but resonant long form I longed to learn. The genius and appeal of these two dancers grew from their musicality and sure-of-themselves radiance. And the surprise--for anyone who had not seen the previous version of Boom! offered during Danspace Project's great Parallels series--came from the fierce spoken word conclusion of the duet which, I think, intended to uncover who these two entities might be. They might remind each of us, in unique ways, of specific people or types or even groups. Who in your life has the power to raise you up at one moment and strike you down in the next? You should leave Boom! feeling a little shaken, a little stirred, even if you're not immediately sure why.

The English equivalent for the Gurunsi word barack is, roughly, "gratitude." With Barack, dancer-choreographer Souleymane Badolo pays tribute to those who helped him along the path from dance training in his native Burkina Faso to celebrity on the US contemporary dance scene. Edith Piaf's "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" is such a strong, recurring color on the dancemaker's florid palette for this solo--a work that displays external and internal struggle--that we can't help but imagine that that passage has been marked by profound difficulty. Nothing regretted, though, neither the bad nor the good. But perhaps we're not looking at "Solo" (this dancer's nickname) so much as glimpsing an embodiment of African experience, a capacious grail within the capacious memory palace of the human body--in this case, a body with massive, heavy wings that unfurl awkwardly as its feet struggle against slippery or unstable ground. An eagle touched down on a river-washed, floating log. Or on smoldering ash. Badolo is some kind of eagle, though. He keeps a wonderful balance. It's like a game with delicate calibrations of the shift of weight for functional as well as visual effect and an outburst of puckish joy to the music of the Congolese singer-musician Tabu Ley Rochere.

I wish I could attend Badolo's Shared Practice event tomorrow afternoon at New York Live Arts but--in a breathtaking example of synchronicity--I, too, will be sharing and teaching a form of divination at the same time. Mine is called Tarot, but Solo's, from his Gurunsi heritage, is called bagger. This practice divines by interpreting thrown cowrie shells, and Badolo uses it to build the structure of his dances. (To understand this, think Cage/Cunningham/I Ching--but just for a moment.) In his impressive new solo, Buudou, BADOO, BADOLO, he uses the operations of bagger to invoke not just any hazy future but, rather, the powerful through-line connecting him to his male ancestors in the long-ago and to his son in the rich, multidimensional present.

Souleymane Badolo and Cynthia Oliver's shared program continues this evening and tomorrow with performances at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan

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