#Storytelling: Tales of Ancestry, Womanhood, & Culture

On Friday, April 26th New York Live Arts presented Souleymane Badolo’s Barack and Buudou, BADOO, BADOLO with Cynthia Oliver’s Boom!  A few similiarities: both artists received support from New York Live Arts’ The Suitcase Fund, hold a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award, and move to an Afrocentric beat.

Oliver and her collaborator, Leslie Cuyjet, opened the evening tiptoeing down the stairs in the dark whispering to each other in agitation.  They found their way to the stage where they explored the nuances of black power, femininity, and the humorous struggle of a defiant sisterhood.  Whether deliberate or not, Oliver and Cuyjet represented the generations, the elder and the younger bound together by culture and tradition, evolving together.  At one moment, the two women separated, each speaking to opposite sections of the audience, talking about and over each other – one heard Cuyjet muttering, “see all that grey hair?”

The generations frequently moved together in tandem, only breaking a part a few times.  Their unifying gestures included a hip-pop forward while standing perpendicular to the audience (with the flair of back-up singers), one arm raised above the head, shouting, “boom!”; fist-raised up in the black power motif, shouting “boom!”; and seated, leaning back, legs up in the air, panting in expectation.  At one point, they explored variations of “boom,” slowly winding their hips down in plie, undulating the pelvis.  The “Boom” manifested several meanings from satisfaction to ego-stroking to sexual release.  Oliver and Cuyjet spent a few moments in a phrase that traveled through the bed-wrestling episodes many a couple shifts through – the snuggle that morphs into sprawling sleep, for one.  That they conducted this while standing highlighted the absurdity of the positions.  Which when post-discussion moderator Reggie Wilson asked about her use of humor, Oliver stated she utilized “it as a device, that when pushed to absurdity, allows for commentary on social situations and stereotypes.”

The women explored relationships and the roles within: sister, mother, daughter, and friend.  They wore similar clothing, loose graphic print pants and white button-down shirts over a tank top – suggesting their equality but with differences – Cuyjet’s blues and tans gave her spunk while Oliver’s palette of purples brooded a subtle sensuality.  Their hair bounced freely as they covered the space.  The breath echoed rhythmically throughout; sometimes on purpose and sometimes, simply because roved so quickly.  Playful and yet serious, they gazed unabashedly at the audience as they spread their legs toward them.  Oliver stated post-show that the work “is the beginning, a nugget of something in development, and we’re seeing where we go.”  Let’s go, ladies.

Oliver freely shared her humor and wit but not carelessly.  She holds a PhD from New York University’s Performance Studies program, is a professor of dance at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and addresses issues of black womanhood in her research – movement and written.  She described her rehearsal process as having many elements; a ritual of moving to the soulful strains of Teddy Pendergrass (I wonder if perhaps they played a little Tina Turner as well), trying movement “on” each other, and talking about what the movement evoked within the mind.

Souleymane Badolo premiered Buudou, BADOO, BADOLO (BBB) at Harlem Stage in 2012 in an exploration of his ancestry with New York Live Arts commissioning Barack (translates roughly to “greeting”).  I first encountered “Solo” as he is called, in performance at the Bessie awards in 2012 (he was selected in the Juried Bessie Award by Lar Lubovitch, Yvonne Rainer, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar), where he took the stage for a fast and furious solo in which we all clapped and shouted our appreciation in a reckless celebration of his vibrant movement.

In Barack, Solo began by gently bowing.  He repeated this a few times, as he ascended into a conductor-like body position with his arms gracefully isolating in a flutter of movements.  Or perhaps, his hands orchestrated the strings connected to his feet which seemed to simultaneously shuffle and glide across the floor beneath his sturdy torso.  Strong, quick and constant, his movements did not travel.  Solo selected an area within which to move, conducted sequences of movement, and then took captive another area of the stage.  In this manner, Solo arranged a series of solos swathed in simmering magenta patches of light within which he contained his movement.

His simple entrance consisted of walking across the rear of the stage, clad in tight red pants and an unzipped yellow hoodie (designed by Nora Chipaumire).  The simplicity of his entrance proved dynamic by the high arches of his feet and his regal steps – the toes curling up as the movement carried to his heel, picking up the entire foot and then articulating entirely in reverse as he set it on the floor.  A commanding stride, yet humble.  Nearly halfway through Barack  Solo first smiled at the audience.  From this first smile, Solo released the a passionate introduction of himself and his movement as an offering.  As he lightly stepped up, over, and around the stage, there is the sense that he is finding his place here – his new home base – in the U.S., far from his African hometown in Burkina Faso.  Similar to the new kid hoping to be accepted on the playground, Solo’s winning smiles suggested that he knows that he will be (how could he not with his elucidated moon walking) but it’s a matter of how and when.  Post-show, he described how happy he is to experience new opportunities, such as continuing his graduate studies at Bennington College (a foundational institution in the field of modern dance).  He has already graced many a stage in Europe, Africa and throughout the U.S. but now he is resituating the U.S. as his home which changes his story.  He writes his story as he tells it; but so much has gone before.  With a leap, a kick, and a smile, a chapter ended.

Between pieces, I chatted with my seatmate about the musical stylings.  We compared different elements we heard in Badolo’s musical choice, folk strains of the rumba he suggests, although I heard (or perhaps saw) ruminations of the samba in his shuffling footwork.  My new friend identified Senegalese and Congo influences, launching into a comparison of the plight of African and Cuban musicians.  At which point we agreed that there are Afro-Latin rhythms at play, although we are not totally sure what they are.

Solo’s second piece, BBB for short, struck a much different chord.  Here, Solo turned back the pages of his history for us, telling the story of his grandfather’s journey to create his family.  The stage contained three stations running the diagonal, for different rituals.  The first, a circular mound of dirt, over which Solo conducted a sacrificial offering (feathers representing a live chicken); the second, a bed of sand (usually rice) on a slanted rectangular platform in which Solo ciphered; and the third, where Solo “rolled the dice” (cowrie shells) to determine or divine the future.  In the background, a drummer sat, with whom Solo chanted back and forth in the climax of his fortune-telling.

Once he cast the die, Solo and his percussionist traveled the entire stage, weaving in and out of the ritual stands, moving quickly and slowly.  They came to a pause in front of bowl set aside from the ritual areas.  Solo bowed down into a headstand in the bowl, absorbing a white chalky, clay substance onto his head and hands. He spread it round and round his head, as his drummer stood behind him, playing.  Solo ended in supplication, face to the sky.

Diving Ritual & Meaning
Diving Ritual & Meaning

Unlike, Barack, BBB opened up a view into his world.  Solo rarely gazed directly at the viewer.  Task-driven, Solo focused on moving through the varied rituals on his own time.  Solo moved with methodical precision – when the cowrie shells bounced out of his hands as he shook them, he paused to collect them and start over before casting them again.  He allowed us to view his sacred space, but did not necessarily bid us enter.  In Barack, Solo cajoled us to join his party.  He approached members of the audience, taking them by the hand, making eye contact with the individual as he danced before them.  With Barack, he brought the dance to us wherein we were brought to the dance in BBB.  Perhaps, we will soon be ready to dance with our new neighbor?  There is much to learn from Solo and he is eager to share.

Both Oliver and Badolo are deeply steeped in their heritage and tradition, yet their movement is not dated or old.  Rather, it is fresh, because it is the search for identity that is pressing for all Americans, or those who simply reside here, whether or not they consider themselves American.  There are so many stories to tell, to hear, and to understand.  They are the stories that evolve constantly as Badolo tells his young son about their journey to existence from the trials of his grandfather to the battle to overcome the high infant mortality rates his mother persevered against, bearing fifteen children, of whom three lived.  They are the stories we tell ourselves and hope others will recognize.

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