Les Ballets Africains Stresses Moral Drama in 'Heritage'


Forget the hordes of superbly disciplined dancers advancing to the footlights in a blur of high-speed footwork. Forget the splendors of West African costuming--everything from leopard skins over warrior muscles to gleaming silver-blue dresses that make every woman seem to be dancing in a cloud.

Forget the masks, the drums and the stringed instruments that sound as delicate as they look. These, after all, are familiar pleasures from Les Ballets Africains, the much-loved national dance company from Guinea that has pioneered folkloric African performance on world stages.

In its latest production--introduced locally at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater on Friday--the big news comes from the company's expanded emphasis on individuals and its growing ability to deliver powerful moral lessons with no loss of theatrical excitement. That, plus a stripped-down scenic style (further simplified by necessity at the Wadsworth), markedly different from the lush, Frenchified pictorialism of earlier tours.

Like the previous "Silo: The Path of Life," the new "Heritage" dramatizes the continuity of tradition within African culture, but it also touches on the acceptance of innovation and the need to see beyond official borders to larger concepts of unity.

The plot concerns a legendary griot who enriches his people by obtaining a magic balaphone. Later he befriends a misguided young drummer--and the scene in which master musicians shape the youth's brilliance without dimming it lies at the heart of "Heritage." Instead of asking the audience merely to surrender to rhythm, the scene makes you listen closely--to hear what's right, what's wrong, what's different.

As a dividend, star performances are given by Koca Sale Dioubate (as the griot) and Seny Toure (as the young drummer). Artistic director/designer Italo Zambo and choreographer Mohamed Kemoko Sano clearly know what every folklore-company has learned about keeping tour audiences happy, but they're master teachers, too, and the increasing sophistication of their productions encourages the deepest possible response.

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