Super “Scales”

Pub date April 9, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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The words were sometimes garbled, but the body’s language was not. Les Écailles de la Mémoire (The Scales of Memory), a fiery collaboration between Senegal’s all-male Jant-Bi and Brooklyn’s Urban Bush Women, shouted, chanted, and danced about anger, pain, and love, always with an Africa-grounded sensibility.

It’s more than slightly ironic that the men of Jant-Bi are more familiar to Bay Area audiences than the all-female Urban Bush Women, who have uncovered African American cultural traditions for more than 20 years. Jant-Bi last appeared in San Francisco in 2005 with Fagalaa, a response to genocide. The Bush Women have not been seen here since 1990, when their Praise House illuminated a failed festival event.

The English title of Jant-Bi’s and Urban Bush Women’s gorgeously complex investigation of what people carry in their DNA is apt. Scales of Memory strips away the layers of hardness that have grown around racial pain. But it also measures, evaluates, and ultimately honors that reality. "I accept," the piece’s 14 dancers announce at the end.

The colonizing of Africa and the history of Africans in this country provide the base for Scales of Memory‘s complex exploration of subjugation and survival. The piece is brilliantly supported by Fabrice Bouillon-Laforet’s mixed score, which draws upon urban, natural, and musical compositions from various sources. The sounds enhanced Germaine Acogny and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s choreography, which is rooted in specifics but open to the world.

Scales of Memory began with the ensemble divided into small groups, each staring silently at the audience. One by one, the dancers stepped forward to shout out generations of ancestry. Though there was no overt textual narrative, the images evoked stories of communities destroyed and resurrected. The solos and ensemble dances hammered their way into our consciousness; they also drew us in with the strength — and humor — of their realization.

Both groups feature extraordinary performers who speak with an African-based dance language but use it in contemporary, individualistic ways. When the men strolled across the stage in unison, they could have stepped out of a Gene Kelly movie. But when they threw themselves into knees-to-the-sky leaps, it became clear that the ancestral ground beneath their feet was composed of clay, not concrete. The women’s big-hipped acknowledgment that they’ve got back — a Bush Women trademark — had a jazzy urban sass to it. Throughout, the dancers exuded power and self-confidence.

Nora Chipaumire, now Urban’s primary dancer, served as a bridge-building priestess figure. When she stepped forth, at first in a white ceremonial gown, she seemed to contain the levels of history and experience within Scales. But all the dancers embodied the pain of enslavement in a way that made it raw, visceral, and present. They put it on stage without any comment.

The men’s red T-shirts became gags and face-covering hoods. Seemingly exuberant male dancers became unbearable to watch once it became clear that their hands were tied behind their backs and an invisible force was beating them into dancing. The performers spread individual expressions of rage and anguish across the stage. They called up the suffering of Africa’s diaspora, then dragged themselves back into a life-giving, body-to-body circle dance similar to the one at Scales‘ beginning.

A mourner’s bench in a slave-auction scene— a seat reserved for sinners in African American church tradition — became an auction block and stirred up old shame. Chipaumire and her male partner sat on the bench and stroked their own heads. They called up body memories of the degrading examinations of physical fitness that determined a slave’s price. But the prop then transformed into one element of a gathering place. Men and women on facing benches jabbered at each other in a scene of pure comedy, one that recalls the memorable finale of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960).

Strong solos balanced group sequences. Catherine Dénécy’s "I Am Who I Am" was simultaneously an attack and a celebration. The modern "Dance Hall" segment offered another form of communal celebration: women preened to comments by an off-stage male voice during its delightful opening moments. Later, a voice-over presentation of a Rumi poem was too sappy. But the ensuing dances between couples were alternately hot and heavy or tender and shy, with a feisty Chipaumire letting her partner know exactly how far he was allowed to go. Restrained or not, Scales of Memory‘s visceral heat just about melted the roof off the theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.