NEW YORK, NY.-
Not long ago, choreographer and musician Olivier Tarpaga, who teaches at Princeton University, wanted to visit the city of his birth and his fathers grave in the north of Burkina Faso. But the region had been overrun by violent jihadis, and he learned that his hometown was now home to a refugee camp for women and children. Instead of visiting, he made a dance theater work about refugees: Once the dust settles, flowers bloom.
At the start of the piece, which had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday as part of the Crossing the Line festival, men enter carrying what looks like a jihadi flag and dozens of objects that turn out to be flip-flops. They move together with tiny, quick steps that could be menacing or comic. One man removes a hood from a womans head and manipulates her limp body in a way that suggests sexual abuse.
And that is the end of any direct depiction of jihadis and refugees. A beat kicks in, and three women stand arms akimbo, bouncing their hips like a Motown girl group. The awful subject matter dissolves into an unpredictable dance work of subtle beauty and mystery dissolves but does not disappear.
The lighting (by Fabrice Barbotin) is dim but warm, as if emanating only from the few lanterns hanging onstage. And the whole production feels dialed down, restrained, so that the surges of energy and speed of resistance and suppressed rage register with disconcerting force.
The heart of the matter is the music, which Tarpaga composed with members of his Dafra Kura Band, who play behind scrims at the rear of the stage. Its West African blues, spare grooves picked out on electric guitar, kora and djeli ngoni, topped with griot vocals and sometimes driven by bass and drums. But just as important are artful intervals of silence, after which the music returns like a breeze in the desert, gently keeping the work moving.
The choreography African, contemporary, not quite like the work of any other company is compositionally sophisticated without being showy. Group segments can be irresistibly groovy but seldom as simple as sustained unison. One or another of the supple, grounded dancers is briefly left out or breaking off. And the flow from section to section is smooth and overlapping. Movement material from one of the many solos might blossom into a dance for three a formal transformation with interpersonal resonance.
Within this flow are images and motions that are poetically suggestive but unfixed in meaning: dervish-like spins, raised fists and fingers. To the sound of polyrhythmic clapping, dancers lying in a line toss and turn as if in some uncomfortable mode of transport, but also spiral off the ground like dust devils. Later, a performer walks along a standing line of the others, as if inspecting troops but also saying farewell to family.
When a dancer licks a finger and writes on the ground, I dont know what he is writing. Neither do I know precisely why all the dancers grip flowers between their teeth or what the flip-flops represent. But late in the work, when the dancers arrange the shoes in piles, their attention makes me care about that flimsy footwear. And when a circle of women brings back that glorious hip bouncing, it feels healing and hopeful. Tarpaga trusts his art and his audience. He doesnt overexplain. He lets emotion and meaning bloom.
Olivier Tarpaga Dance Project
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times