Dancers swathed symbolically in cloths of white, red, and black alternately glide and writhe on a darkened stage; pulses of light create flickering halos around them. Projected images of torture victims loom grimly over gossamer stage curtains. A dancer covered entirely in white powder gestures upward, a ghostly figure silently entreating inexplicable powers. As shadowy bodies slink across the backdrop, a man hunkers over his own entrails, a scream soundlessly frozen on his lips. Such exquisite tableaux of suffering are strewn throughout Fagaala, a balletic meditation by Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny, known as the "mother of contemporary African dance."
Performed by Acogny's modern dance group, Compagnie Jant-Bi, Fagaala, which means "genocide" in Wolof (a Senegalese language), is a nonlinear interpretation of novelist Boris Boubacar Diop's Murambi: The Book of Bones, a fictional account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The performance refrains from a narrow chronological account of the novel, and moves seamlessly between past and present, victim and torturer, absurdity and tragedy. It's an explosive, ritualistic idiom; as you watch, you get the sense of bearing witness to the physical resurrection of memory.
The dance has already been performed extensively, and is a collaboration between Acogny and Japanese choreographer Kota Yamazaki. The latter is a master of butoh ("dance of darkness" in Japanese), an art form that examines the human potential for chaos and ensues from another destructive and tragic event: the decimation of Japan and much of its cultural traditions after World War II.
The all-male ensemble combines the exaggerated theatrics of Japanese butoh with the rhythmic vigor of African dance, creating a performance that oscillates between deliberation and speed. Using dance to dramatize the most extreme violation of human rights is an unexpected aesthetic maneuver; and although Fagaala may prove to be more intense than most dance pieces, the performers' descent into a maelstrom of fear, pain, and hope resonates with beauty and compassion. As the dancers look back on the tragedy of 1994 in a relentless quest to understand the pointless terror, viewers are swept along on the journey. The collision of movement and sound wrenches both dancers and audience members from disbelief and denial, as subtle and dynamic shifts of lighting and character take us from visions of solidarity to images of bereavement. Through gesture and rhythm, the performers transcend the very language of suffering, pushing the tale into a context far beyond a mere tragedy of intertribal violence.
Acogny and Yamazaki's take-no-prisoners approach to dance theater makes for a testament that isn't limited to those who suffered, but also includes those forced to account for their crimes. True to Diop's novel, this is more than just an encomium to the human spirit -- it's about what happens when suffering turns from a whisper to a scream, forcing all within earshot to listen and respond.