Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Tres Bien Mais Triste


“Les Ecailles De La Memoire”, better understood as “The Scales of Memory” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, better known as “BAM”, was a disconcerting piece of African interpretive dance.

An enviably muscular dancer in her late twenties wearing an turban oddly reminiscent of an onion proclaimed “Je suis Creole!” to start off the night. “Ben, Je le crois!” I murmured back to her half jokingly, half in earnest. Loosely translated in English she said she was Creole, and  I said I believed her. Swelling slighty with a strong sense of self satisfaction I reflected on my French. It is a strong point I am rather proud of.

Yet there is little room to be irreverent or cheeky when it comes to the forehead creasing issues of African history that danced before our eyes at this performance. Featuring seven Urban Bush Women and seven men of the Senegalise compagnie Janti-Bi respectively, it was a mixture of interpretive dance, historical retrospection, and yes a bit of romance for entertainments sake.  A company collaboration between leaders of African interpretive dance Jawole Willa Joe Zollar and Germain Acogny proved nothing short of visual and moral punch in the face.

There was no clear story line or narration but later we learned from our programs that it was meant to reflect the social and geographic journey of African Americans. It spanned the time of freedom, diaspora, slavery and the general cultural diffusion of the race. The Senegalese men flexed their ripped limbs in crouching positions all the while uttering shiver inducing guttural grunts. Their physical antics were undestandibly difficult and thus appreciated but it did not address clearly its purpose in the play.

One moment in particular where I felt befuddled was when five dancers were positioned separately so as to fit the points of a five point star and they all proceeded to execute steps deserving of a solo performance.  Audience members winced as one member of Janti-Bi proceeded to beat his bare back with a long wooden rod. It was taken to be a reflection of the abuse and hardships African Americans went through in slavery. Elevated on platforms of different levels these numbers were really an overdone visual assault.

There was too much matter and not enough art. The actual number of the dancers detracted from the attention to their execution of dance steps. Women were separated and distinguishable from the men with billowing robes of various rosy hues.  The men, in togas of varying cuts made a comical picture as they strenuously danced their way into couples. After all the hardships that they suffered they still were connected by their culture and dancing chops. In one mellow moment the couples relaxed the difficulty of their steps and just swayed along to a soft drumbeat, like the padding of feet on a bare floor.

Considering and conceding all the drama, pain, confusion of the African experience, The Scales of Memory left us oddly at peace and curiously looking to the future. Of course the future could be choreographed by Ms. Zollar and Mr. Acogny or we could write it ourselves.