Two Snaps from the Festival Transatlantique 

By Philip Szporer
  • Gibson Muriva with Jenny Brizard, Ghislaine Doté, Fernande Leal and Émilie Tremblay in his work  
  • Zab Maboungou / Photo by Seydou Coulibaly 
  • Gibson Muriva with Jenny Brizard, Ghislaine Doté, Fernande Leal and Émilie Tremblay in his work  
  • Gibson Muriva with Jenny Brizard, Ghislaine Doté, Fernande Leal and Émilie Tremblay in his work  

Maboungou and Muriva 

Zab Maboungou, Gibson Muriva

Montréal  September 17-20 and 23-26, 2009

“Gestes Dé/libérés” by Zab Mabougou

Two welcome evenings of contemporary African dance greeted audiences at the seventh edition of the Transatlantique Festival, co-produced with Montréal arts interculturels. Opening night featured a double program bringing together Montréal’s Zab Maboungou (Cie. Nyata Nyata) and Winnipeg’s African troupe NAfro Dance, led by the charismatic Casimiro Nhussi, on their first visit to the city. The former offered a short new dance, and the latter presented a series of four pieces from its repertory, entitled “Let Me Dance Before I’m Gone”. A week later the relative newcomer to Montréal Gibson Muriva presented a new work. This review will focus on the premieres of Maboungou and Muriva’s work.

In “Gestes Dé/libérés”, Maboungou, who is of Franco-Congolese origin, born in Brazzaville, the capital of what is today Congo-Brazzaville, the former French colony of the Moyen (Middle) Congo straddling the equator in sub-Saharan West Africa, references the aesthetic of African traditional dances, privileging recognizable expressions: the use of hip bends, little hops, bent knees, flexed, broken lines, the engagement of the entire body through poly-centred and poly-rhythmic movement vocabularies, and affinities to weight and gravity. But she adheres to no story, and imbues the dance with a wholly abstract contemporary sensibility. In Maboungou’s own words, “Movement is engagement, neither deferred nor diluted.” As such, she defines her own authority, and delivers a clarity in performance that just stays with you. 

To clarify the specificities of Maboungou’s dance, I’m borrowing a quote from dance scholar Bridget Cauthery’s essay, “A Dancing Philosopher: Zab Maboungou Celebrates Twenty Years of Work in Canada” (Dance Collection Danse, No. 65, Spring 2008), in which she writes: “When questioned about what kind of African dance she performs – usually by Europeans keen to fix her to a certain place and time – Maboungou complies, describing herself as a practitioner of Congolese dance. But this, she explains, is a fabrication. The indigenous peoples living in what is today’s Congo-Brazzaville did not always live there – it is not their traditional homeland. By virtue of forced settlement or displacement by European colonization, the people living within the borders imposed by the Congo Act that gave France control of the region, became “Congolese”. Thus, to speak of Congolese dance is meaningless; there are dances performed by the Kongo people but these dances are not performed strictly within the geographical territory defined as the Congo. So African dance, encompassing a range of regional traditional dances within a global diaspora, shared between generations within the Congo but also recreated in the colonial mother countries and in other former colonies, conveys a richness of solidarity within Africa’s fractured identity. In Paris and later in Canada, Maboungou studied traditional music and dance of the region but also undertook studies in the traditional dances of Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. She also danced with several Paris-based companies.”

In this invigorating new work, Maboungou begins front and centre, in navy pants and a sleeveless charcoal vest-like top, stock-still on a red floor. It’s a restrained dance at the start; she shifts incrementally and, ever so slowly, turns her compact body. Her face is set with a steely gaze. There is something alluring, complicated and unforgettable in Maboungou’s performance: watching how her body circles upon itself is like watching the meanderings of the way the mind works.

Through her teaching, Maboungou has developed a cult of her own. Here, on stage, she is an energy force field, whether pointing two of her fingers or swivelling her arms, changing directions. What strikes me is her confidence and strength. The pace quickens, when the musicians step on stage (at first drums are heard from the wings). Live accompaniment is provided by percussionists Folly-Marc Keyevuh (on the tama), and the dancer-choreographer’s son, Elli Miller-Maboungou (on the ngoma). The relation between the music and the dance has been questioned in the piece, in a way that recalls Cunningham and Cage’s meeting of choreography and composition solely at the time of the performance. Often, African dance music guides the dancer, but with this work the dance adds rhythmic components of its own, independent of the music, though at some point the music and dance blend. In shaping the piece this way, Maboungou is shifting the way an audience appreciates the music and the dance.

I don’t know “where” she is while she dances, in what “space” or “time”, or even what landscape she occupies. It doesn’t matter, because she is spellbinding, effortlessly embodying the mystery of being. 

“Sisi” by Gibson Muriva

Gibson Muriva’s personal story is bracing. The Zimbabwean-born dancer-choreographer arrived in Montréal just two years ago, after having danced in Calgary for Decidedly Jazz Danceworks. But he came to Canada, in 2003, a refugee escaping the tyranny in his home country. Introducing his work to local audiences, he’s also bringing some indelible stories from his home country that are, at best, difficult to recount. In terms of his dance life, he has always been a dancer, early on participating in his mother’s community dance classes, which focussed on the region’s traditional dances. At seventeen, he joined the National Ballet of Zimbabwe, learning and performing an array of dance styles.

A week after the Maboungou-Nhussi show, Muriva premiered his new work, “Sisi” (“Sister” in his native Shona language), supported in creation at the MAI . The movement combines African dance motifs stemming from his homeland with jazz and ballet to share the story of women’s realities in his native land, confined by the “trap” of their gender and culture, and the HIV epidemic that afflicts Zimbabwe (two of his female siblings, both married, died of AIDS). Sometimes you are able to see your own country when you step away; what Muriva has achieved in “Sisi” is, at least by its aspirations, a selective narrative that is sensitive to the small dramas that sealed the course of his former life.

Muriva, who also dances in the work, comes out first, playing a small-sized hand drum, looking (and sounding) like the djembe. Soon, four female dancers (representing his sisters) join him on stage (Jenny Brizard, Ghislaine Doté, Fernande Leal and Émilie Tremblay), walking along the back wall with baskets in their hands. They begin to sow seeds with a pronounced playfulness and wide smiles, as clouds pass gently by on the screen behind them. It’s a beautiful sequence depicting with responsive detail the powerful connection to nature in their lives. 

Dressed simply – knee length skirts and button-up blouses – they cross the space, the women stomp into the floor, their toes and heels pressing the imaginary pods into the earth. Setting the baskets down, they proceed to braid scarves onto their heads. These small touches build cumulatively. It’s clear that this piece is partly an ode to Zimbabwean childhood, albeit an abstract one, and the vividness of Muriva’s country’s landscape.

A series of quick-stepped lilting phrases, darting movements, and twists of the waist and hips, by the women is heightened by their casual grace and ease. Muriva’s distinct modernist aesthetic creates a visual signature for the piece, emphasizing swinging and suspension of weight and expansive arms and legs sweeping and cutting through space.

Throughout, he effectively frames a family portrait, with the back-story to this performance being the relationship between power and subjugation, as represented by these women. The dance is as much about the bond of sisterhood, as it is a dance that presents the complexities of the country he came from. Whether he is entirely successful in communicating his quite specific themes – about AIDS and his sisters – is questionable.

Zimbabwe is a place in which women live in a world where men hold the power and dictate their fates. In Muriva’s dance, it’s difficult to grasp quite simply on a thematic level that these women don’t seem to be looking for liberation at all. The text, spoken in Shona on the soundtrack (by Alex Cattaneo, who provides the music and sound design), apparently speaks to the power of patriarchy and the need to rethink that stance. Clearly, as this story evokes, there are men who want to crush it. It is a hard task to bring these politically and socially charged ideas to the stage, and it’s too easy to say there is universality to dances such as this one.

What Muriva gets very right, and this is the revelation, is his embrace of women. The cast appear responsive to his vision: his skilled dancers (in particular a strong and winning performance by Doté), dance as if their lives depend on it, the rhythms of the movements keep driving them deep into each phrase. Muriva is at the start of his choreographic career, developing himself and evolving as an artist, and he is a welcome addition to this country’s dance scene. 

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