Saturday, February 15, 2014

Souleymane Badolo's "Benon" premieres at Danspace Project

Souleymane Badolo
(photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan)
In a manner of speaking, Benon, the new hour-long duet from Souleymane Badolo at Danspace Project, has a foot in one world and another foot entirely elsewhere. Yes, Badolo, originally from the West African nation of Burkina Faso, flourishes at an intersection of strong cultural tradition and searching innovation. He has done so for a few decades within his own choreography as well as the work of Nora Chipaumire, Reggie Wilson and other artists. But what I'm thinking about now has nothing to do with what's age-old and what's contemporary but rather the crucial difference between what's extraordinary and what's merely ordinary.

The title of the piece alludes to the harvest celebrations of Badolo's homeland. But the piece begins not with displays of abundance and communal joy but with the ominous sight and grating sound of discarded commercial plastic. Crates crammed with empty spring water bottles occupy polar corners of the space. Scrunched-up lengths of plastic trash bags form a vest-like mesh around Badolo's bare torso, and he clutches a stack of plastic cups in his arms. Charmaine Warren wears a full, flowing hooded cape of translucent plastic with a trailing skirt made of black trash bags, a costume of surprising regal beauty. She wears it well. With Warren firmly attached to his back and following his every move, Badolo gravely treads the space, dropping or tossing cups onto the floor.

This, then, is our harvest, our plenitude. The thought arises: "You will reap what you sow." Badolo has turned the idea of harvest upside down and ventures into the realm of the prophetic, the extraordinary.

Warren's extended solo work in this duet is indeed extraordinary, her severe manner and gaze perfectly recalling Symbolist portraiture. From the placement of her feet to the raptor-like expanse and dry, decisive swirls of her arms, she brings focus and grandeur and a compelling weirdness to each movement in the space and each moment. And the returning Badolo, donning braces of blond straw that extend from his back like a body halo, seems ready to set a new, solemn phase of action and meaning in motion.

But as the work continues, the spell breaks. Once broken, there's no return. Badolo appears to move farther from his purpose and farther from the extraordinary into a regrettably ordinary plane.

Why walk up and stare into an audience member's eyes, as Badolo does, twice? Those stares should pack more power than they do here. The gesture recalls the way a ritual dancer, possessed of a god or spirit, might transmit the energy of that ethereal being to the gathered assembly. But here the jump of electricity from dancer to watcher goes missing. We don't feel it. We don't learn from it. We merely wonder, Why did he do that? What does it serve?

Overall, the presence and contributions of saxophonist Jeff Hudgins do not appear to be well defined. Why layer his bleats and honks over recordings of Burkinabé songs? Why, as the dance moves into its later passages, have him drift into the space and around the dancers? He is not dancing, nor is he adding anything to the dancing. This maneuver, in itself not especially fresh, reveals no significance unique or essential to Badolo's project.

Benon's initially tight coil loosens, and--rather than presenting a definitive ending--the end dancing becomes engulfed by darkness in a way that suggests an artist's resignation rather than choice.

Lighting: Carol Mullins
Costumes: Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya
Set design and construction: Tony Turner

Benon concludes tonight at 8pm. For program and ticket information, click here.

131 East 10th Street (at 2nd Avenue), Manhattan

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