by Elizabeth Whelan for The Dance Journal
A country in the throes of ongoing military coups since 1966, a band lacing together traditional ancestral music with jazz, blues, and reggae, and a man with a dance to share. This past weekend, Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project—dually based in Philadelphia and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso—stopped by the FringeArts Theatre during the company’s five city US tour for three outstanding shows. Presenting their new project, Declassified Memory Fragment, Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project brought light to the power-craving reality of Burkina Faso, where director and choreographer Olivier Tarpaga is from. The project-based company was formed in 2004 and is directed by Tarpaga and his wife Esther Baker. Typically a mix-gendered company, this project has a strictly all male cast. “All of these wars, its all about guys. All of the political struggles: guys. All guys, talking about how strong they are. You see a meeting of eight guys around a table, discussing women’s issues and making decisions. Its crazy,” says Tarpaga during the post-show conversation, “I want to get things out that we don’t talk about. America should do the same.” The audience erupts in applause. The performance is equally politically and culturally informing as it is artistically sound. Complete with rich live music performed by members of the Dafra Kura Band, motorcycles, and clear themes of power, resistance, despair and brotherhood, Declassified Memory Fragment is the story of life in Burkina Faso since gaining independence from France in 1960. The show begins with the dancers and musicians intermingling in the space. From the start, it’s clear that in African culture, music and dance are one. “What we are creating is saving lives in Burkina Faso,” explains Tarpaga. Rooting back to the high-energy traditions of the griot ancestors, the music tells the stories of the West African country’s history while simultaneously painting its evolution and progress by incorporating nomad desert blues, afrobeat, and jazz. A griot is a historian, storyteller, or musician that has the high privilege of maintaining the oral history of the ancestors. The name of the band points to its intention of redefining the idea of African music, as “kura” literally means “new.” The musicians weren’t the only part of the project that combined traditional with contemporary. In a cross between modern dance and traditional African dance, the choreography for Declassified Memory Fragment is a hybrid of the times. “Tradition defines my modernity today,” Tarpaga states as he addresses navigating the creation of art that uses both contemporary ideas and deeply rooted customs of Burkina Faso’s history and culture. For Tarpaga, understanding the similarities and differences of the two is of profound importance in his approach to respecting all people and cultures. The movement transitioned seamlessly from the depiction of everyday life in Burkina Faso to the tension that engulfs a country constantly struck by militaristic violence. In an intriguing homage to motorcycles, the mode of transportation that over eighty percent of Burkinabé use, one of the company members maneuvers a motorcycle around the stage switching his vocalizations from the sound of a purring engine to that of a machine gun as he picks up the bike, pointing it directly at the audience as he fires. Moments like this help the western audience grasp the reality of life during a military coup. The members of the company have witnessed almost all of the coups while growing up in Burkina Faso. And yet, they have danced through it all, using art as their salvation. “The only way we could mobilize the people was through dance, because [the politicians] don’t understand us. Musicians are able to bring the population out,” remarks Tarpaga, mentioning that ”as a dancer, you are greater than what you do and society needs you.” It’s people like Tarpaga and his company that create viable impact in society. His dancers and musicians perform with such inherent integrity that you can feel the necessity to express and share within every moment of the show. They dance not to perform but to explain their truth- that dance and music are their means of survival within a world of struggle. Jumping with effortless suspension, sliding and skidding across the floor, all while not missing one beat that ricochets through the theater, the dancers move with a victorious outpouring of the soul. The program concludes with a beautiful and somber finale as red petals fall from the ceiling. The dancers move in beautiful harmony with the music. The relentless effort in motion underneath the red petals— perhaps a testament to the bloodshed of military coups—drove home the distress of the search to hold on to hope and spirit amidst such tension. “I’ll take this home and perform it, and go out and scream,” says Tarpaga, who without a doubt will continue on dancing and playing music until his country is a haven of peace where his art can thrive without juxtaposition against the coldness of power struggle and fear.
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