It’s not surprising to report that Zab Maboungou, the Congo-raised Montréal-based dancer-choreographer and philosopher, has devotees who speak about the transformative effects of her dance. Her life’s work has always been about connecting with people, and she builds these connections through intercultural, interdisciplinary processes of exploration. Her articulate intelligence is captivating when you have the chance to speak with her in person, and she is often able to instill that astuteness and spirit in her movement.
Sadly, this time, in her new solo, “Décompte”, she doesn’t sustain her ambitions. As she has indicated in many pre-performance interviews, the title suggests a detailed account, and in this work she is reflecting over the landscape of her oeuvre, looking for traces, determining what’s left. The evidence is not her best choreography. It’s obvious and repetitive, and a few minutes into the abstract work, I was glad to know that it would last under an hour.
On stage, Maboungou is an Everywoman dressed in jeans and vest, giving an unselfconscious performance. She does best in sustained, intense envelopes of movement. But as we’ve seen in other of her contemporary African dance works, she’s highly adept dancing in a dialogic relationship with the music. Maboungou doesn’t achieve effect through a punctuated articulation of music, but rather through the rhythmic breath inhabiting the beats. The music seems to well up within her, and she appears able to move it. For the viewer, time and space alter in most unexpected ways. Curiously in “Décompte”, Maboungou seems most effective when she’s dancing full out – something that seems beside the point in earlier works – though here too, it happens only fleetingly.
“Décompte” marks the company’s twentieth anniversary. Maboungou has been a fixture in Montréal’s burgeoning dance scene for that entire time, even if she has been operating (through no plan of her own) in the margins. No matter if recognition by peers or institutions has sometimes eluded her, she has always danced. Walk along a stretch of the Main, the city’s famous artery, and on any given day or night you’ll hear drumming beats pulsing from the windows of Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata’s studios. Active creation and teaching have sustained her, and now as she has said repeatedly, she is, in essence, putting it all together, looking back in time at what has come before, and reflecting on what might be.
The piece starts out in intimacy and in silence. A shadowy pool of light captures Maboungou in a crouched position, performing isolated short gestures, ending in what can only be called poses. Arms drive forward in a sawing motion. Standing, her body framed by a square of light with the rest of the stage in the shadows, she repeats some of the same phrases, again ending in frozen positions. Watching how these movements evolve incrementally, almost imperceptibly affecting flow and pace, is most fascinating. Her arm circles, her hip engages, her foot drives.
In the second phase of the conceptual work, the physicality and the music are inseparable. This is Maboungou’s central thesis. A Western cellist playing Bach and a rhythmic conga drummer are situated on either side of the stage. Musically, though, in “Décompte”, the unconvincing (though intriguing) mixing of genres is equally at odds with Maboungou’s gestures. Cellist Marc Keyevuh’s weak delivery of Bach’s “Prelude from Suite No. 2 in D Minor” didn’t help. Jean-Christophe Lizotte, pounding rhythms on two conga drums, fared better.
Maboungou leaves the stage, briefly, giving room for the musicians, to “converse”. When she reappears, her body is angled diagonally between them. The contrast of a small, compact woman sandwiched between two guys and their tall and bulbous instruments, makes her look very tiny. The repetition is constant; her arms still navigate, prompting her movement. By virtue of the musicians’ dialogue, as curious as it is, her dancing body is reduced, her energy fractured in the space; certainly, structurally, the dancing seems insignificant in the face of the circular musical conversation. Maboungou is looking for depths, and as convincing as her rhetoric is, she seems not to be digging deep here, and couldn’t allay my doubts about this piece. At the top, in a voice-over, she announces rather flatly, “I am your MC tonight.” But her ‘hosting’ is limited to that one utterance, otherwise her presence seems listless, hardly welcoming.
To contextualize, the contemporary dance world is an esoteric one, not geared to a mass audience. I like that, in most cases, the majority of us in the audience don’t know what belongs and what doesn’t. We don’t need to know what metaphors mean or specifically how they are being probed. But audiences generally have the instinctive ability to know what’s going on, and when things aren’t working. However, Maboungou fans in the audience on opening night didn’t seem in any way perturbed. Quite the opposite, in fact. The stomps and applause that greeted Maboungou at her curtain call were loud and audible. It seemed to me these individuals were thinking back to her other achievements, and her generous, powerful performances of the past. Here, in “Décompte”, her material should have been better. I wanted to be drawn in and I was not.
On the assumption that Maboungou wants to make dance that is provocative, it’s equally probable that she wants to extend the possibility of dialogue. While it’s important to recognize that imperfection is a necessary part of any ongoing creative process, what makes Maboungou’s concerns in “Décompte” problematic is that she’s unable to give depth to the ideas that she postulates in interviews.
This is Maboungou’s first appearance at the Agora de la danse. The dance centre is recognized as the venue for local choreographers of a certain level of experience and calibre. That her innovative approach to contemporary movement and her dance interrogations of race and identity have never before been presented in this venue is evidence of a lack of risk-taking among presenters and a sad statement. Given the opportunity with “Décompte”, it’s too bad the work didn’t rise to the occasion.