Over the weekend, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater opened their season with Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project from Philadelphia and Burkina Faso. Director of the theater, Janera Solomon, created the World Stage Series in 2008 and has since brought 19 companies from 20 different countries to the East Liberty stage.
In their world premiere of Declassified Memory Fragment, Baker & Tarpaga featured 8 male performers from Burkina Faso, including Olivier Tarpaga (co-artistic director of the company). The piece used live music and movement to shed light on issues facing African societies. The company described the work as a look at “the unpredictable circulation of power and the resulting tension, destabilization and explosive climax that occurs…”
Declassified had many evocative sections. The multi-talent of the performers as both dancers and musicians was most impressive. There were an array of instruments on stage. Some were familiar: acoustic, electric, and bass guitar. Others were unfamiliar: the kora, calabash, and djeli ngoni.
Although the themes were sobering, the choreography also showcased the humor and enjoyment of brotherhood. Included were playful partnering phrases, and athletic movement that ranged from balletic jumps to contemporary floor-work to agile footwork resembling breakdance and capoeira.
There was also powerful imagery, some of which displayed the power struggle between friends. Toward the middle of the piece, the men vied for time underneath a spotlight. That turned into an ominous shaking motif that crescendoed into frenetic movements. Some of the solo phrasing throughout was disjointed and off-balance. In one section, a man twitched as if emotionally broken down. Four other performers backed him into a corner, until he eventually exited.
The most memorable and well-constructed sections came at the beginning and the end. To begin, one man stood with his back to the audience, a dark hood over his face. One by one, the remaining cast members encircled him with quiet authority. Shouts combined with street sounds and gun shots played over the speaker system. In quick, bound, and intermittent phrases, the hooded man dropped to the ground and back to his feet again.
In the second section, three dancers sat center stage under low light. The performers positioned themselves one directly behind the other, giving the illusion of only one dancer in front. The visible dancer gestured slowly with his arms, drawing in the viewers with his strength and grace. Gradually, two more sets of arms extended behind him, giving the appearance of one multi-limbed being. All six arms eventually wrapped around the chest of the dancer in front, a breath-taking embrace with poignancy and beauty.
The end of the show held the same power as the beginning. One dancer jerked his body, struggling as if his legs were tied together. When he ended up center stage, white petals fell from the rafters in a steady stream over his body. Although the effect has been done before, the eloquence was just the same.
As the rest of the dancers entered, the petals turned red and continued to fall. When the soloist wrenched himself to the ground, one couldn’t help but think of death. One dancer stripped him of his jacket and wrapped it around another’s head and face, similar to the opening. The piece ended when the seemingly lifeless man rose up, but eventually dropped to the ground again in an abrupt blackout.
The piece had no direct narrative, but the images and emotions were clear. The dancers succeeded in bringing both humor and terror to the stage, rightly challenging audience members to pay attention to a world beyond their own.