Voice — the elusive quality that speaks volumes about subjective artistic experience — took centre stage at The Gas Station Theatre as NAfro Dance Productions opened its fusion-based, African contemporary dance season with “Sauti”.
With the title literally translated from Swahili for “voices”, the production featured two world premieres, by NAfro’s driving force, artistic director Casimiro Nhussi and Calgary-based guest choreographer Michèle Moss. Both works explore the “Sauti” that arise from nature and the human body. An on-stage drumming ensemble accompanied a company of six vibrant dancers, with Nhussi frequently sitting in with the players during the action-packed show. The lanky artist — also an accomplished musician who will be releasing his own CD in November — holds nothing back, with the high energy, two-hour show (no intermission) including nearly an hour of jamming, jiving and audience participation.
Originally hailing from Mozambique, Africa, forty-four-year-old Nhussi has been working as a dance professional since 1982, including a stint as principal dancer and later artistic director of the Mozambique National Song and Dance Company. After arriving in Canada in 1997, he founded NAfro in 1999 and has since presented one major collaborative show each season as well as various dance and music workshops throughout the year. Nhussi has been carving out a niche as Winnipeg’s only African contemporary dance company, and he currently teaches and choreographs for The School of Contemporary Dancers, Professional and General Program, as well as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Recreational Division.
NAfro shows — I almost want to call them “events” — are known for their fine production values, and this one was no exception. Naturalistic, splotchy costumes by Winnipeg-based aboriginal designer Andréanne Dandeneau (MJAnne Couture) and Fjola Sprague-Cole’s knock-out lighting design helped capture the spirit and intensity of a heat-baked, African veldt.
Special mention must be made of guitarist Cam MacLean’s evocative score that integrates electronically processed, rumbling drums with the stirring sounds of honking geese, rain and thunder. MacLean has worked with NAfro over the past five years, with his soundscapes providing an earthy, dramatic flair wholly sensitive to Nhussi’s vision.
The first of the program’s two major works, entitled “Sauti”, seeks to represent the “muffled voice of the mother Nile; whose beauty is fading fast.” The thirty-five-minute piece is organized into five sections that depict the urgency of environmental destruction, and the peril of ignoring the cries of a motherland in distress. As the abstract work flows like an organic river of movement, the emotional rawness of its six characters is gradually revealed.
The work begins delicately with “Segment I: Awakened by the changes of our surroundings”, as a trio of company dancers Paula Blair, Nicole Coppens and Hélène Le Moullec Mancini stretch their arms wide and arch their backs like vulnerable witnesses to the coming storms. As the plucky sound of a kalimba morphs into wailing sirens, they are joined by Dammecia Hall, Kyla Wallace and guest dancer Lulu Sala, whose limbs whirl in unison, reminiscent of traditional African dance while also asserting Nhussi’s unique aesthetic that interpolates a more vigorous, contemporary movement vocabulary.
During “Segment II: Tainted Wind”, the dancers struggle to remain upright as a strategically placed offstage fan threatens to blow them across the stage. Now dressed in tattered shirts and pedestrian style pants, they appear like refugees knocked down by the winds of change, rolling across the floor but eventually able — literally — to get back on their feet. There is not a lot of actual choreography in this section, but the poignant imagery still speaks, loud and clear.
The work only intensifies with Nhussi’s wild, gesticulating solo in “Segment III: Fire & Rain” that sees him throwing his body on the floor, tumbling backwards and leaping across the stage while percussionist Jay Stoller punctuates the movement with an improvised, crescendoing djembe accompaniment. The drama is further heightened by the larger-than-life sounds of crackling fire and looming shadow play, until the five dancers re-enter to stand in a pool of light, faces looking upwards to the sky while clicking their tongues to convey the gentle fall of rain.
They stand with mouths agape as if to catch the falling drops, until the mood abruptly shifts from hope for life-giving rain to fatalistic despair as “Segment IV: The crying of dry emotions” evolves. This is one of the most powerful moments in the entire work; as their tongue-clicking gradually diminishes, the dancers’ sense of helpless agony becomes palpable as their own life force ebbs with painful, silent gasps for air.
It’s also the moment that could have been taken further, that held the greatest potential to really pack a powerful wallop, and bring the show’s all too timely message home.
Unfortunately, in “Segment V: Persevere”, it feels like the bottom of the dance falls out, quickly wrapping up loose ends while scuttling away from its gritty, dire warnings. The reason for this disappointing artistic choice is not clear, other than my assumption that Nhussi wished to end the work with some sort of life-affirming statement. After the heart-stopping drama of the previous section, he suddenly breaks the fourth wall and literally (and unsettlingly) stops the show to distribute colourful plastic tubes to the audience, who are instructed to whack out rhythms to accompany the dancers during the finale. Nhussi then launches into a brief, extemporized warrior solo echoed by the company’s stomping, quasi–whirling dervish finale, with the work eroding into a free-for-all jam session. The incongruence only weakened the premise of the entire work, as if to say, “Just kidding.” Nhussi clearly has a lot to say, and a loyal following of fans all too eager to hear it. He could — and should — just go for it.
The second work, Moss’s “Skin and Bones: mashup/shakeout” also explores “Sauti”, this time of the body’s inner landscape expressed specifically through the vitality and rhythmic impulse of the “articulated spine”. The British-born choreographer, dancer and educator has a substantial history working in hybrid dance, with this production marking her second collaboration with Nhussi since NAfro launched its biennial dance project, Patana in 2005. Moss is currently on sabbatical leave from her faculty position with the University of Calgary’s dance program, and is a co-founder of Calgary’s Decidedly Jazz Danceworks as well having served as Dancers’ Studio West’s artistic director from 2000 through 2005.
Fueled by a potpourri score heavily laced with jazz, this stylish group work begins as Le Moullec Mancini calmly strides onstage, vocalizing against booming, amplified drums as if caught in her own world. A strong feeling of isolation permeates this work, underscoring the idea that we are all ultimately alone in our respective bodies. Moss plays against this when she establishes an intriguing — and tantalizing — quasi-narrative of a growing relationship between Sala and Coppens early in the thirty-five-minute piece.
With a sophisticated movement palette that ranges from freely spinning dancers, who seem like subatomic quarks, to a sensitive, fleeting waltz between the romantic couple, Moss’s work unfolds like a late-night jazz solo. Dancers enter one at a time, coming together and then quickly separating while changing directions like fickle weather vanes. The first embrace of the couple brings relief and emotional connection, with a progression in which the duo becomes increasingly unified.
But it’s Sala who steals the show with his mesmerizing performance. A former soloist with Mozambique National Dance and founder/artistic director of Union Dance Projects, the Winnipeg-based dancer is simply a joy to watch, alternating between loose funk and finely honed placement with a powerful intensity that he modulates like a craftsman. As he steps through the air, punching out repetitive movement with shaking hands and flailing legs, his body seems to become completely fluid, fulfilling Moss’s quoted African adage in the program about dancing “without bones” as the ultimate in beauty and power.
So potent were these images that I wanted more. The couple’s relationship feels undeveloped when they simply part at the end, with no clear, satisfying resolution. There were moments of truth along the way; however, they seemed to disappear all too quickly, subsumed by the collective experience.
Still, Moss’s own restless voice as a choreographer is worth listening to. By not only fusing the indigenous cultural dances of Africa with contemporary movement, but also contextualizing and taking it all one step further with a twist of streetwise jazz, she proves her innovation as an artist who promises to take the art form to even greater heights.