In Lwáza (“chatting” in the language of the Kongo people) dancer-choreographer-philosopher Zab Maboungou has created a terrific piece. It’s a mesmerizing work for three dancers and two musicians that challenges the notion of gesture and the meaning of origin and raises the question of accessibility. Maboungou sets the tone immediately. In the entryway to the theatre, shoes are dispensed with, and we walk into the performance space in stocking feet. The intimate stage is surrounded on three sides by staggered seating. The tone in the room is hushed. The lights are dim and eventually fade to black as the dancers (Patrick Bayne, Karla Étienne and Marielle Mencé) and the drummers (premier percussionist Dominic Dankor, former member of the National Dance Company of Ghana, and the equally dexterous Haitian-born musician Makumbé) take to the stage.
As an African dancer and choreographer, immersed in the rhythms, sounds and dances of Central Africa, Maboungou changes directions, literally and repeatedly, and so the seating in the theatre is highly effective. She submerges herself in a world of repetition, but never careless repetition, and is a fiend for problems of sequence and logic. To use a literary metaphor, her modifiers never dangle.
Born in Paris to a French mother and a Congolese father, Maboungou spent her childhood in the post-independent Congo Brazzaville, and has lived and worked in Montréal for the past twenty-plus years, teaching and shaping the ever-evolving dance form at her company’s studios. She has earned the affection and gratitude of scores of would-be African dancers, transferring her vast knowledge onto bodies that don’t come from the places she does. In a public forum, she’s an authoritative speaker. On stage, she’s agitating bodies — hers and others — building up rhythms in correspondence. The theory of chaos is very well articulated in African dance, she’s often said. In her energy life/force investigation, gestures are not isolated, movement is continuous. Maboungou calls it “question and answer”, and those queries resonate in this new work.
The body is dimension in Lwáza; it is a way of being in the space. Each body is unique, stirring the space, shifting the space. This new work is the answer to Maboungou’s solo performance, Nsamu (“the subject of debate”), her previous formalist, rigorous dance, where she moved volume, constructing the space. With Lwáza she’s agitating it, breaking it down, but the formal aspect never leaves what she does because of the way she works rhythms, designing time and space quite literally to produce a robust architecture.
What’s remarkable is not so much any particular movement or series of movements but the overall impact of the piece. The work jettisons the extraneous; the dance is transparent, precise and muscular. The lean dancers work in different quadrants of the dance floor, sometimes moving into proximity and then branching out once more. Their gaze is intense; their attention never wavers. Their gestures are absorbing: a body crouches; a hand brushes the lower back and then quivers, building in intensity to a fast flutter; the shoulders and arms pivot; a foot goes forward and then back repeatedly. The dancers change directions, steadily, always moving and altering their focus. Even when they’re not in close proximity, a conversation is in motion — something internal, something shared. The tremendous performers embody stamina and endurance, but it’s when the dancers are at rest that the dance completely transports me. Maboungou has imbued the performance with a considerable amount of presence and unhurried pacing.
The drummers are at the periphery of the dancing space. One is slightly stooped over his tall drum, while the other is erect. Their hands pump the skins of their instruments in a distinct conversation, forming an incredibly satisfying alliance. There’s a progression in the music, a call and response soundscape. The sounds keep us hooked and the dialogue continues, with the audience in the equation — not dancing, of course, but sufficiently entranced that we eventually lose a sense of the time passing. Fifty-plus minutes, for me, have never passed by so quickly in a performance. The lighting, by designer Eric Duval, intensifies from a sierra sandy colour to a more saturated palate of blue, orange and brown suggesting an enveloping darkness; it’s as if the air hovers.
In Lwáza, Maboungou has taken dance and music that one senses is as old as time and rooted with specific cultural references, and she’s made it accessible. But this is not movement that just anybody could do. She links territory, village and urban centre, African and Western, subverting our concept of performance and, dare I say it, life. More specifically, this dance sensibility — and her philosophical understanding — is responsible for thinking up a crucial correlation between dance and space in this piece, and the complex structure creates emotional resonance. I’ve heard comments from some audience members who, unfamiliar with Maboungou’s work and philosophy, have wondered, in the first few minutes, what they’re watching. Soon, however, they stop asking questions. Through line, gesture, sound and diffusion of light, Maboungou allows us entry into African life patterns that perhaps are not ours, and yet they seem so familiar that they easily enter our systems. “Time, in African terms, never ends,” she says. “It never begins; it never ends. We can only capture moments.” For Maboungou, this abstract notion of time resides in the rhythms created by the drums and in the bodies of her dancers. The rhythms capture time, and her dance is one of the best proofs of this. It’s a journey to the point of meditation. There is something that we share with the dancers and musicians, and among ourselves, that is quiet and unspoken, transcending culture and domain.