Senegal troupe is cut off from its roots. Trying to please Westerners, it has become like them
Storrs, Conn. — THE National Dance Company of Senegal is internationally renowned for its energy, color, and physicality. For over a quarter-century and during 20 global tours, the troupe of singers, dancers, and musicians has won accolades as one of Africa's most distinguished performing organizations. The company was founded, shortly after Senegal won its independence in 1959, by poet Maurice Senghor, nephew of then-President L'eopold Senghor. Its mission was to stage tribal songs, dances, and ceremonies from the diverse peoples of his new nation - the Wolof, the Serer, the Dyola, the Peul, and the Tukulor - as a celebration of Senegal's many cultural heritages.
Today the company is a source of popular entertainment, but two decades ago, during its American debut, it caused a sensation; in many cities performances were canceled, while in others squads of police lined the aisles to prevent female dancers from appearing with bared breasts. Ironically, today the African dancers appear to be embarrassed by the nudity that was once so natural to them, while viewers of soap operas on American television are no strangers to bared bodies. For me, this contradiction was both puzzling and highly provocative. Let me explain:
When I recently saw the company at the University of Connecticut here in Storrs, the audience responded with great exuberance. The music was loud. The dancing was frenetic. The costumes were bold and colorful. And the energy was volcanic. But I was not at all convinced that the Senegalese company is much more than an ethnic replay of those dazzling ``Flash Acts'' that used to close vaudeville shows - a great deal of glitz and dazzle to make up for a lack of substance, which brings up a persistent problem in the presentation of ethnic culture.
Folklore cannot endure the theatrical exaggeration that producers use to turn ethnicity into commerce. This kind of commercialization is an almost unavoidable quandary for most ethnic companies, from the Mexican Folkl'orico to the Mazowsze Polish Dancers - groups that make valiant efforts to transport folk materials from their native worlds into the theater.
There is something mutually exclusive about the intimate, culture-bound, participatory nature of ethnic rites and the quite contrary rituals of the theater. The very qualities of redundancy, naivet'e, and nonchalance that are so very attractive in ceremonies viewed in native settings become repetitious, pointless, boring, and highly self-conscious when viewed from a seat in the theater. The very fact that so many members of the Connecticut audience reacted with enthusiasm to this artificial ``authenticity'' only emphasizes how much we long for exotic experience at the same time that we willingly settle for ``fakelore,'' as Richard Dorson, the late Indiana University professor and author, so aptly called it.
What is most curious about the commercializiation of ethnicity is the way it feeds back into the culture and fundamentally changes it. We assume that the Senegal company is merely attempting to turn its 30-member ensemble into a commercially viable stage company. But something more insidious has taken place: By praising people for pleasing us, we have encouraged them to become us and to abandon themselves.
Today it is far easier to sit in an American theater and scorn the tasteless elaborations of native costume which, for instance, the Senegalese dancers wear in their piece called ``Mandinkole,'' or to disapprove of the shrill amplification of native instruments like the kora and balafon than it is to recognize that such costumes and amplification have become intrinsic aspects of Senegalese culture. For 25 years our applause has indicated what we like, and, as a result, the people of Senegal have settled for a culture that pleases us rather than their own culture. What they have pretended to be, for the sake of pleasing us, they have become.
This kind of ethnicide has taken place all over the world. And there is apparently no way to reverse its momentum. When I first visited Zaire and Mali, the hospitable inhabitants were both fascinated and appalled by my Western dress, but only a decade later, when I returned, all the men were wearing jeans and were more than a bit embarrassed by the photographs I had previously taken of them in their native costume.
In thinking about the Senegal company, I am struck by the irony that black American choreographers like Pearl Primus and Garth Fagan have produced a more genuinely authentic and impassioned theatrical transformation of African culture than have the artists of today's Africa. Ms. Primus and Mr. Fagan understand the strength of their ethnic heritage at the same time that they evade the trivializing expectations of audiences. Their result is an imaginary Africa that is more real then the real Africa.
In contrast to the self-image of these American artists, the audience's view of Senegal seems to have become the Senegalese view. I came away from their performance deeply distressed by a program of songs and dances that was sadly overproduced and drastically underrealized in terms of imagination and variety.
The marvelously wide range of tribal movement had given way to hopelessly self-conscious pantomime in ``choreographed ballets'' that were grim reminders of the results of Westernization. At the same time that the themes and forms of the performance were compromised by commercialism, the incredible dance heritage of Africa was forsaken. There was an overwhelming dependence upon three or four persistently repeated movements of the legs. The narrative themes of the dances seemed to have been drawn from romantic Hollywood melodramas. And with rare exception, the costumes were campy impersonations of Las Vegas exotica.
All that remained of an ancient and noble tradition was the exquisite refinement and complexity of the drumming, so brilliant and so highly evolved that it alone reminded us of the worlds that have been forever lost to the descendants of those once great and civilized tribes of Africa.