SPIRIT MOVES THEM : High Energy Is the Nature of Senegal Dance Troupe

Chris Pasles covers classical music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

The West African Republic of Senegal is the size of South Dakota, but it boasts a richness in culture that the Coyote State might well envy.

"Senegal has 10 states--not so big like the United States, of course--but we have more than 15 ethnic groups, and each ethnic group has its own culture," said Babacar Mbengue, company manager of the National Ballet of Senegal, which will perform in an exclusive Southern California engagement Tuesday through March 12 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"It's not possible in two hours to show all the groups," said Mbengue, who has been with the company for 25 years. "What we try to show in this program is the variety of Senegalese life."

Mbengue was speaking from the Collinsville, Ill., stop on the company's first U.S. tour since 1988. The shows began in New Jersey in January and will end in Connecticut in April. Locally, the Irvine Barclay will sponsor most of the engagement, but the Orange County Philharmonic Society will sponsor the March 9 and 10 dates.

The same program will be danced each day. It is organized around a single concept: "Pangols," a word derived from the Wolof language that refers "to the spiritual nature of all beings and things."

"In Senegal, we have many different religions," Mbengue said. " 'Pangols' is just a belief in nature. Nature is good. Well, it also can be evil, but in this program, there are no dances of evil being overcome by good. Next time we come, yes!"

The troupe of 40 dancers and musicians was founded by poet and national leader Leopold S. Senghor in 1960, the year of Senegal's independence from France. (French remains the official language of the country, but Wolof is spoken throughout as well.)

Senghor was president of the country until he retired in 1981. Bouly Sonko, a dancer and singer and later director of a second national ballet troupe, took over as artistic director in 1982. Mbengue entered the scene as an assistant in production but has never appeared on stage. "I am one of those children who were not taught by his mother to dance," he said.

Each dance on the program, whether concerned with telling a story or focusing on a particular movement or musical form, explores the spiritual nature between humans and the environment. In traditional West African culture, the animate and inanimate alike are considered to be possessed by spiritual forces--good and evil spirits--which can influence personality and behavior, circumstances and outcomes.

The program will include a hunters' dance; the "Keme Bourama Song," dedicated to the war chief who resisted the French incursions into West Africa; "Khaware," an African festival; "Balanta," a re-creation of a legendary dance competition from Cnakaro in Guinea-Bissau, and the finale, "Mandikole," with virtuosic dances from two ethnic cultures in the ancient Senegalese Empire of Mali.

There are also spirit figures on stage in various costumes and masks, including one on giant stilts. Musical instruments include single-string lutes and fiddles, a 21-string harp-lute, plucked lutes, flutes, a variety of drums and xylophones.

The program is characterized by high-energy singing, dancing and drumming. Audiences will see vigorous high-stepping dances, arms accelerating in windmill turns, dancers executing somersaults and side-moving full-body pushups.

"What we do is just a transposition from the village (festivals) to the stage because in Senegal, as in almost all of Africa, the dance takes so long, sometimes all night, and the audience here doesn't have more than two or three hours. You can't get an audience to sit through all night. Any part of the festival could run all night."

The steps are traditional but arranged for theatrical presentation, as approved by village elders.

"When we make a new show, we have to go on tour across the country because the people want to know what we're doing and that we're doing it right," Mbengue said.

To keep up the pace, all of the dancers are younger than 21 because the dances are so demanding.

"Each performance is like a marathon," Mbengue said. "They give 100%. Just to sit in the audience and watch them is tiring! There's so much exercise."

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The dancers are selected from all over the country through auditions, and both sexes are almost equally vigorous and agile. But, unlike the real village situation, the dances must be rigorously rehearsed for the stage.

"We do improvisation, but we have to respect the choreography," Mbengue said. "Because of the time limitations of the program, you can't improvise too much. In Africa, the dances take so long because of the improvisations."

Because Senegal has a 10% literacy rate, village festivals contribute mightily toward solidifying a sense of culture, which is also transmitted through the airwaves: There are more television sets per person in Senegal (one per 126) than there are telephones (one per 157).

Many dances relate to agriculture, which occupies about 77% of the labor force. Even so, about 20% of the population--roughly 1.7 million--lives in the capital of Dakar. The high energy level can also be tied to the fact that almost half the population is younger that 15.

The principal population groups in Senegal are the Wolof (36%), the Fulani (17%) and the Serer (17%). Smaller groups include the Mandinka and the Tukulor. About 92% of the Sengalese are Muslim, 6% animists and the rest Christian.

Islam, introduced in the 11th Century, has become the dominant influence on the culture, although until its independence, the country in modern times was called West French Africa.

However, apart from the language, French culture left comparatively little impact. The binding force of dance arose from the indigenous cultures of Africa.

"In Senegal, dance is for everybody, young people and old people," Mbengue said. "If you are old, you don't have as much energy, but you dance however you can."

In fact, when the company performs at home, "people often come onstage to participate," Mbengue said, adding, however, with a laugh, "we don't want people here to do that."

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What: The National Ballet of Senegal.

When: Tuesday, March 7, through Friday, March 10, at 8 p.m. and March 11 and 12 at 2 and 8 p.m.

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left onto Campus Drive. The theater is on Campus near Bridge Road, across from the Marketplace mall.

Wherewithal: $18 to $31.

Where to call: (714) 854-4646.

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