When Les Ballets Africains unveils “Heritage,” its newest evening-long work this weekend at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, audiences will see an array of spectacular and varied costumes, from royal capes with elaborate headgear to unitard snakes and lion costumes.
Much of the spectacle is authentic and traditional, but a great deal is also pure theater.
“Myself, I am a man of the theater,” said Italo Zambo, artistic director of the Guinean company, who designed the costumes and sets.
Even so, Zambo, his choreographer Mohamed Kemoko Sano and technical director Hamidou Bangoura spent two years doing field research for the piece.
They were trying to re-create the legend of how a magical instrument--the balaphone--originated and spread throughout various regions of the 12th century Mandingo Empire, then the most powerful empire in West Africa. In the story, a musician acquires the instrument from a great king and visits seven regions of Guinea and three other countries that once also were part of the empire.
“Each of these countries has its own language and its own stories,” Zambo said, “but this one is common.
“So we went around to all the villages, with cameras and tape recorders, to see the best, to take the best. We also studied costumes in the National Museum” in the capital city of Guinea, Conakry.
“All the costumes on the stage mean something,” he said. “Most mean the regions where we have been for the story, the people of those regions.
“Even today, when I see somebody, I know from his dress, this man surely comes from Senegal or Liberia. All the countries in Africa have this specific dress which we know, but other people don’t know.”
Colors, for instance, have particular meanings. Red is very charged, and so not everyone wears it.
“When you see old people dressed in red,” Zambo said, “you’re supposed to know that they are special men. It means that they are spiritual or represent the spirit.”
The fabrics, too, convey information about the origin of a costume. Guinea itself has four regions: the high lands, the coast, the forest and the Fouta Djalon Mountains. Dress can range from cotton to animal skins, although today, people are more likely to wear clothes made from synthetic or natural fiber fabric rather than animal skins.
“Please don’t forget that we are now in the 20th century,” Zambo said. "[For the dances,] we just imitate the lion skin, or the skin of snakes. . . . We take care of our environment.”
Besides, “we need to have a balance on stage and not have costumes be too heavy. We try to make them beautiful first, but make them so my dancers can move very easily.
“What we do on stage is what they do on all the stages in the world, like the Bolshoi, the mise en scene in ‘Swan Lake,’ they never try to have a real lake onstage. Please.”
It would be equally impossible to exactly re-create village dancing on a stage. “When we dance in Africa,” he said, “all the young boys and the old men and women also dance, and everyone dances for themselves. [On stage,] we imitate the step, the music, but we have to teach people to dance for an audience.”
The audience, at least in this country, often requires other departures from tradition. In Africa and Europe, the male and female members of Ballets Africains dance bare-chested when the dance calls for it.
“You go into my country, you go into the market and to the river, you see young girls are not covered,” Zambo said. “It is nothing for us. We have many problems with this in your country, however. People don’t understand. We do. It’s our culture.
“So it depends on the policies of the presenter. If he says we’re supposed to cover, we will. It’s not my problem.” (At UCLA, the women will be covered for the matinee but not for the evening performances.)
In all other matters, Zambo said, everyone in Guinea helps the company achieve authenticity. “Before we leave Guinea, we’re supposed to give one big show for everyone,” he said.
“We invite all the people, plus all the story-men and the griots--the human libraries--and everybody is supposed to say exactly what they think about what they see.
“They’re supposed to say, ‘It’s good or no good,’ ‘I think that song is not the real song; I’m from the village and the real song is like that, the real costumes are like that.’ This is the best way for us to have the true thing. This is why I say we are considered the museum of our country.”
It wasn’t always this way. When Guinean choreographer Keita Fodeba founded the troupe in 1952, he ran into opposition. Different tribes insisted that only they could or should sing their own songs and dance their own dances.
Opposition was still running high when Zambo, who turns 58 today, joined the troupe in 1955, three years before the former French colony won its independence. But through long and diligent efforts to work with the people--plus the support of the government--he managed to get the tribes to accept the company as their national voice.
“Before, people didn’t understand what I wanted to do,” he said. “They would say, ‘This is sacrilege. Your grandfather never did that. Your grandfather never went to America or to Europe to show our secrets.’
“But my mission is to try to develop our arts, our culture and to show people of the world that we have different dances, different music, different costumes. People have known for a long time that we are very rich in culture and rich in art. Now our people understand, and some regions say, ‘Why don’t you come and take something from us?’ ”
* Les Ballets Africains will dance tonight at 8 and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds. $28.50-$31.50, evenings; $23.50-$26.50, matinee (half price for children 16 and under). (310) 825-2101.