Turning a corner in a West African town, you might be lucky enough to find a group of brightly dressed neighborhood women gathering around hired drummers for an afternoon of joyous dancing and socializing. If so, you'd probably want to stay forever.
The National Ballet of Senegal captured this archetypal scene--and the excitement it generates--early in "Pangols," a cavalcade of West African culture that opened an eight-performance engagement Tuesday in the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Of course, the women on stage were superbly trained professionals, so their encounter with the drummers quickly developed into a complex, unison song-and-dance showpiece unlike what you'd see on a West African street.
Other major differences existed as well. In West Africa, the dancers would belong to different age groups, while nearly all the members of the National Ballet of Senegal (the men as well as the women) were so very young that they reminded you of those American productions of "Giselle" in which everyone in the village looks barely 20.
And, of course, in West Africa the dancers would have names . In Irvine, however, the 40 dancers and musicians didn't even get an alphabetical listing in the program booklet. Yes, the tour presenters and publicists, along with the Barclay staff, board, trustees and donors all received credit, but the only African name attached to "Pangols" was that of the company artistic director, Bouly Sonko.
Worse, that booklet didn't always list the 11 scenes of "Pangols" in the proper order and often omitted crucial information. For instance, it called "Balanta," merely a dance competition, while the "Pangols" videotape (on sale in the lobby) told you that it represented a male initiation ceremony--in fact, the essence of the piece.
Obviously, you could have a great time at "Pangols" without reading the program. The daredevil stilt-dancing, explosive gymnastics, galvanic displays of group prowess and, in particular, the glorious nine-man drum festival in the second act proved brilliant in their mastery, irresistible in their force. Moreover, lyric solos on the cora --a harp-lute made from a large gourd--demonstrated that subtlety and elegance are also integral to West African performance.
But the question of how National Ballet of Senegal is being presented in Irvine looms large when the company has brought major soloists to America and carefully structured "Pangols" to replace the cliches of folkloric performance with a more enlightened depiction of African traditions.
Specifically, the company breaks down faceless corps patterns through passages of performer interaction that personalize the choreography and make everyone an individual. How ironic that we see them as unique young people more than ever but aren't allowed to learn their names.
When Susan Marshall brings her modern dance company to the Barclay later this month, will she be the only artist listed in the program? If not, why the double standard when Africans dance?
* National Ballet of Senegal dances "Pangols" tonight and Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. and Sun. at 2 and 8 p.m., in the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. (714) 854-4646. Tickets: $18-$31. Note: The company women dance topless in some parts of the program but will be covered for the two matinees.