By Christine Murnane
A new performance piece at Harlem Stage may change the way we view African culture.
Choreographer and composer Olivier Tarpaga, of Burkina Faso, brought his well-regarded contemporary dance piece Declassified Memory Fragments to New York City for the first time for one night only on October 4.
Dubbed a “dance theater work with live music,” the piece is Tarpaga’s response to the military coups that happened in his country as well as the political situations happening in Kenya, the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe.
It features an all Burkinabé cast of four musicians and four dancers, and a lighting director from Paris. The musicians played traditional West African instruments including the calabash drum, kora and ngoni. There was also an electric guitar.
Tarpaga grew up dancing traditional African dance in his neighborhood before going into a professional company. He started learning contemporary dance in the ’90s. He fell in love with improvisation and as a teen got up early in the morning to move in silence, watching his shadows on the wall.
“People in my neighborhood thought there was something wrong with me,” Tarpaga recalled. At that time, contemporary dance was new to his community, so his silent shadow dancing was not making sense to his neighbors. He said the women in the neighborhood told his mother that he needed help because he was dancing without music.
“It was because music was so important in our community and traditional dance always had music,” he said.
His beginnings in traditional African dance underpin his avant-garde work today. “It gives me the energy, the tempo and the creativity. It is where I get my inspiration,” he said.
At its conclusion, the performance received a standing ovation. Monique Martin, Harlem Stage’s director of programming, returned to the stage and searched for words.
“Just… wow,” she said, beaming.
At the reception following the performance, the piece received an impassioned response from audience members in the contemporary dance community.
“I liked how it was theatrical and symbolic without the symbolism being so straight up in my face,” said Gabri Christa, a professor of modern dance, screen dance and composition at Barnard College.
“And I loved the connection between the men. When we see men on stage, it’s not often that there is a real connection that you can feel,” Christa said. “They had no problem touching each other or being with each other. There was a real unity and camaraderie without it being either sexual or violent.”
Cayla Simpson, a dancer trained in modern, contemporary and ballet, attended the performance on a whim.
“Olivier’s work was very honest and very human,” Simpson said. “It wasn’t so much like I was watching technique or virtuosic performance but I was actually involved in it, kind of like watching a film.”
Kojo Ade, an audience development consultant for 651 Arts said the piece was his first introduction to seeing all-male contemporary dance and traditional dance together. For Ade, the live music was the most poignant part of the performance.
“Some of the other times I’ve seen African contemporary dance, the music was recorded, so it’s a different element of rhythm and movement when it’s live music,” he said. “The live music brings the audience in touch with the movement and everything more sensitively. It touches us on another level of human experience.”
Tarpaga has also presented Declassified Memory Fragments in Burkina Faso. To him, his home country was the perfect place to perform the piece because, as he explained, people don’t just see the creativity, the physicality, or the music. Rather, they see themselves in the piece. “They’ve seen the coups and they understand how the coups in the plot went down,” he said. “They hear the music and they connect with it.”
He hopes the piece may inspire change there by shining a light on the political instability in the country and that it will be a platform for people to mobilize and talk about it.
But he also wants the piece to help the audience recognize Africa as a culturally rich continent. Now that it has been performed in New York and elsewhere in the states, including at the Princeton Festival of the Arts, he is hopeful it can give the American audience a more positive and comprehensive view of Africa.
“People should talk more about the positive stuff because I’m sick and tired of people thinking that it’s all about sadness and people hungry and people angry and that people are terrorists—It’s really not true,” he said. “I want people to understand we are trying to bring change by what we are critiquing about the continent. But we want people to go home with a beautiful taste of African creativity, African beauty and power and African positivity.”