Immediate response

Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula shares his vision of contemporary Africa

By Rita Felciano

'RHAPSODIC" ; may be the best way to describe Faustin Linyekula's Triptyque sans Titre. The work made its Bay Area debut this past weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, inaugurating the venue's ambitious "Risk and Response" series. In 50 minutes, Triptyque veered between the horrific and the serene; its circular structure implied a sense of recurrence leading to both acceptance and exhaustion.

Congo-born Linyekula is one of a growing generation of African choreographers creating unambiguously contemporary work that countermands prevailing notions of Africa and African dance. It's one of the most encouraging and exciting artistic trends emerging from that huge continent, showcased locally in Linyekula's performance, as well as Oct. 7, when the doyenne of modern African dance, Germaine Acogny, brings her Senegal-based Compagnie Jant-Bi to Yerba Buena, featuring the all-male Fagaala – a piece she created with Japanese choreographer Kota Yamazaki as a response to the Rwandan genocide.

For his part, Linyekula started in theater, adapting, among others, Molière and Marivaux, but discovered dance serendipitously while working in Kenya. It's easy to see why. He's a tiny wisp of a performer, and there is a windblown quality to his dancing – yet his internal energy focuses his every motion, whether he's whirling on the balls of his feet or spiraling into the fetal position. The ease and fluidity he demonstrates is not unlike that of the best hip-hop dancers.

There is no overt narrative to Triptyque, even though Linyekula announced in the beginning that he had a story to tell. Yet the work's dramatic and emotional thrust carries the viewer along with the inevitability of natural cycles. Have you ever woken from a gut-clenching nightmare only to find comfort in the sound of a moving car outside your window or a light down the hallway? Linyekula is both that dreamer and the man whose waking hours are haunted by radically conflicting memories; though he can't reconcile them, he has learned to live with them.

Barefoot and dressed in a tight white top (that he tried to tear off at one point) and a skirt made of newsprint (that he shredded toward the end), Linyekula had a counterpart in Pepy Ebotani, who wore Scotch plaid pants, a green jacket, and black shoes. An equally virtuosic dancer, Ebotani had a suave, posturing urbanity, displaying himself to the audience and strutting with self-confidence. On one occasion, the two men danced diagonally across from each other as if to spell out that they are both emanations of the same being.

Two other rather muscular dancers of very similar body type, Djodjo Kazadi and Daddy Kamono, were costumed first in hooded floor-length robes and later in colorful loincloths. They formed a kind of chorus: watching, nonparticipating, and indifferent. At times they appeared to be glued to TV screens; at other times, they assumed boxing and wrestling postures and fought each other. The actions of these performers hinted toward Congo's history of fratricide, though Linyekula studiously avoided making obvious political references. At one point, the two stood next to each other, arms crossed, staring straight ahead. They looked like door posts to hell through which Linyekula squeezed. Yet when they shed their robes to embrace and support each other, Triptyque sounded its one false note; no doubt meant as a gesture of hope, it looked sentimental in an otherwise stark and unflinching work. That naïveté simply couldn't compete with the emotional impact of Linyekula carrying Ebotani's "dead" body, then most poignantly embracing and dancing with him before laying his partner to rest across his lap. The regenerative power of mourning has rarely been so effectively dramatized.

Linyekula's most important collaborator for this haunting piece was sound designer and composer Joachim Montessuis. Crouched on the floor and costumed like a witch brewing up some poisonous stew, Montessuis performed live. Both assaultive and poetic, the music built to a nightmarish volume and screaming intensity while the dancers went through their paces mouthing inaudible lyrics. (Since exposure to decibel levels that make diaphragms vibrate can be painful or even dangerous for an audience, Yerba Buena thoughtfully provided earplugs for those who wanted them.) When the music cut off as if chopped by a cleaver, the audience was left in a dark illuminated only by the set's small hanging lights. All of a sudden, the dancers became audible: They were singing softly, individually, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in call and response. What were those songs: lullabies, popular tunes? What language? It didn't matter. The comfort, the gentle reassurance of these voices was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Triptyque's short video section, depicting gradually emerging faces, was quite superfluous. But when, at the end of the piece, Linyekula apologized for having forgotten the story he was about to tell, he was wrong. He hadn't.