REVIEW: “Diamono” by KanKouran West African Dance Company at Dance Place

Review: KanKouran West African Dance Company presents Diamono at Dance Place
Saturday January 14th, 8pm
By Raquel Lake

A KanKouran West African Dance Company performance is not just an experience, it’s an education. An impactful and inspiring education into the roots of one of the original art forms on the planet: dance. Something turns on when you hear the call of the drums, something that lives deep within us all. When the drummer plays his syncopated question – ‘will you dance for me?- you instinctually respond with a resounding: ‘Yes!’

The piece that the company performed Saturday night was entitled Diamono which means roots. According to the program, “Diamono portrays the annual cycle of seasons among the various people who live in Casamance*.” One of the most impressive aspects about the performance was the allowance of each dancer’s own expression. You got the sense that once they learned their choreography, the last element was for them to bring a part of themselves to the dance. I appreciated seeing dancers have the ability to be themselves in the performance.

As an audience member of a KanKouran show, you don’t just watch, you participate, willingly so. You get the opportunity to return to your roots. Returning to the source to understand where you came from, where you are in the present, and where you are going. When the drummers make that beat, it all snaps into place. Last night, along with other audience members, I got to return to the source. I got to understand why I love dance and why I began dancing in the first place. The answer: because the heart of the drum called to me. Thanks to KanKouran, I know this now.

Before the curtain was opened and the lights came up, we heard the drums. It was the time for “The Blessing.” The curtain drew back revealing a drummer’s circle that consisted of eight drummers, the KanKouran Senior Company Drummers. The drummers ranged from young boys to men, all dressed in traditional West African garb. We saw color, we heard sound, and lastly we were asked to participate to the rhythm with our own clapping. All that was missing were the dancers. Then, six dancers danced their way onto the stage and came fully prepared with an arsenal of dynamic West African movement. The six teenage girls on stage high stepped and reached for the heavens with happy smiles on their faces. Audience members began to call out in admiration for the dancers and their performance. The dancers didn’t miss a beat. Even when one girl lost a part of her costume, she kept going, not missing a single articulation of her hips or moment of her footwork.

The six dancers introduced us to some of the movement vocabulary we would see throughout the night: arms that reached and whirled, backs that arched, knees going in and out, all parts moving and grooving with the rousing drum beat. This first piece was an introduction that ended with the dancers’ arms up while they yelled out: “KanKouran!” It was a worthy yell, as they were victorious in delivering a stellar performance and welcoming us enthusiastically to KanKouran.

The show continued with a beautiful blue tableau as the elder drummer stood and directed his men. Four dancers arrived on stage for “Part 1- The Harvest,” amid drums and singing. They were men preparing for the work of dance, dressed in wonderfully rich-colored clothes and holding digging hoes. The four men included KanKouran’s Artistic Director, Assane Konte. Konte has been leading KanKouran for the past 30+ years. Despite being almost 70 years old, he can still dance and deliver each step with the same explosive and captivating delivery as the other members of his dance company.

The men danced, impressing us with their steps. They turned and leaped as they made way for the next set of dancers to enter. This time we were greeted by six women with silk scarves on their heads and gorgeous fabrics on their backs. As the drummer played his role, the dancer did too. All the colors were an unexpected company member as well. The rhythm was electrifying. It was impossible not to move during the performance. Toes tapped, heads bobbed and hands clapped the entire time. The audience was seated group of dancers taking in all the energy and passion that the KanKouran West African Dance Company was giving to us.

Just when I thought that the show couldn’t outdo itself, it did. Diamono entered the “Ekonkon” section of the performance. “Ekonkon” is a traditional dance of the Jola people. This section was ushered in by the dancers with the same high energy as the previous section. The men put away their hoes and traded them for machetes. They cleared the way for a new crop of dancers. Eight women dressed in bra tops and skirts, lined with cowry shells and beads, took the stage with their bowls ready to help. The bowls were also lined with cowry shells and added a new texture to the rhythm. The women sang out and twisted their bowls and hips to the beat. The women’s feet stepped front and back always on time with the drum. Their knees were low and backs were arched, and they moved as a well oiled machine.

Some of Konte’s dancers have been with him for many years, and their years of experience with him truly shows. The best part was seeing dancers of all ages dancing and working together. This added a unique aspect to the night’s performance. Often we are only presented the idea of dance and movement being achievable for a young dancer. Konte, by his own example, and through KanKouran, makes you rethink this idea all together. The beauty and the nuance that an older dancer brings should never be forgotten or overlooked.

The show also featured two solo performances by musicians playing traditional West African instruments. The griots, or West African musician storytellers, are responsible for keeping the oral history of the people alive. The first performer of the night, Amadou Kouyate, played the kora. The kora is 21 string lute bridge harp. Kouyate stood in the middle of the stage like a rock star making his kora sing sweetly. It produced so much sound. It sounded like many instruments all at once playing a beautiful ethereal tune. After spending so much of the night with the drum, this brief departure was refreshing. Next up was Uasuf Gueye on the balafon. The balafon is a large xylophone. The story Gueye told while he stood center stage with the balafon was one that sounded playful, full of happiness and mirth. He eagerly performed for us and we were all delighted. Both griots were amazing.

The last piece the company performed before intermission was the only piece of the night not choreographed by Konte. “Balant” was brilliantly choreographed by Mariama Basse. This piece included 11 drummers and the six girls from the performance’s opening piece. The girls danced their hearts out. Whether the drum went fast, or faster, they stayed on the beat. Arms up, arms up, knees high, knees high, on the ground, on the ground, stand up – whatever they were asked to do, they did it with much energy. Another element of Basse’s piece, like in Konte’s amazing choreography, was isolation of body parts. Chest moving back to front, while hips move side to side, while the feet move in and move out. All these movements were done with impeccable speed and accuracy. As you can tell by now, it was hard keeping up with these awe-inspiring performers. By the time intermission was upon us, we welcomed the brief moment to collect ourselves.

After intermission, the lights came back on it was time for the final piece of the night, “Bantaba – The Celebration.” It was indeed a celebration. We saw five women open the celebration for us. Their beautiful dresses complimented their movements. The women stepped on time, swayed and moved to the beat. Next up were the men in all white. Throughout the night, whenever the men took the stage, they showed off for the audience. They performed with true showmanship, aiming to please – and they did. Next the eight women arrived on stage to celebrate too. As an audience member, it was hard to know where to look. No matter which dancer you chose, you couldn’t be disappointed. They all danced their butts off. Everyone gave a 110%; they worked it all the way out! Mabinty Bangura-Looky, one of the night’s stand out performers, told me after the show “you don’t feel tired while performing, you feel the exhilaration and the energy of the audience and that keeps you going.”

In the end, the stage was packed with dancers and movement, the hall filled with music, color and light. The evening at Dance Place watching KanKouran was a non stop dazzling event.

*Casamance is a region of Senegal