Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula
Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula

NEW YORK CITY |  “Dance is an attempt to remember my name,” says the Congolese choreographer/director Faustin Linyekula. “How do I continue? Where do I find the energy to continue? How can we dream of making an impact on the scale of cities?”

On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, Linyekula took to the stage with the American director Peter Sellars for a September 17 dialogue on Florence Gould Hall in New York City.  It was a curiously incomplete evening, even though their talk about art and social change was profound and engaging from start to finish.  Hearing Linyekula talk about the body and African dance whets the appetite, which is perhaps part of the point.  Except that the proper way to fully experience Linyekula is to see him moving onstage.  He’s an entrancing and incisive performer.  At one point, Linyekula tapped his right thigh, and I thought he might get up and dance.

No matter. Tonight, September 18, Linyekula returns to Florence Gould Hall to debut his autobiographical new work, Le Cargo, which tells of his 2011 return to Obilo, the Congolese village where he spent part of his childhood.  Co-presented by “Crossing the Line” (the French Institute Alliance Française’s annual fall festival) in association with the Museum for African Art, Le Cargo premiered at TBA in the USA before heading to New York.  It is a shame it’s a one-night-only performance.

If you miss Le Cargo, you can still catch this Congolese artist (b. 1974) at the Museum of Modern Art in October. In What Is Black Music Anyway…/Self-Portraits, a dance/performance he created for the exhibition Some sweet day, Linyekula returns to form: performing with other dancers and musicians. He is joined by Congolese guitarist and composer Flamme Kapaya (Congolese, b.1978) and South African singer Hlengiwe Lushaba (South African, b.1982). Together they contemplate what black music might be in the museum’s white cube space. The piece will be performed Oct. 24, Oct. 27 and Oct. 28. A response with Dean Moss and Faustin Linyekula will be held on Saturday, October 27 at 4:00 p.m.

“I am a storyteller,” he says in Le Cargo, “but I’m not here to tell stories, I’m here to dance.”  His dialogue with Sellars engaged because it provided the political contexts and artistic retreat that propelled Linyekula to deliver his first solo piece ever.

This past fall, Linyekula whispered to me that he wanted to pause creation for a moment and take a retreat. (Our meeting took place after a public dialogue with the Brooklyn-based African-American choreographer Ralph Lemon at a two-day symposium on contemporary African Arts at the Institute of African Studies).  He wanted a respite. As he explained to his friend and collaborator Peter Sellars last night, “It’s about creating spaces in order for a cell to create another one and to become a tissue. I needed a retreat. I wanted to explore my trajectory as a human being during those moments in retreat. I wanted to be alone, to reflect and then I can go back. Now I want to go back there on stage and be with other people.”

Le Cargo tells the story how he lost his dance and went back to his childhood village Obilo to find it (it’s located outside of Kinsangani, where his Studio Kabakos is based) to find it. Have I ever really danced properly? Or just told stories? These were the questions the Congolese choreographer asked himself after 10 years of work at the Studios Kabako, and it is also the starting point of Le Cargo. In his dialogue with Sellars, Linyekula did stop himself from re-telling his journey along overgrown railroad tracks back to Obilo, the village where his father worked. (He saved the actual re-telling for Le Cargo tonight.) In Obilo, dances that were forbidden to children were danced at night.  Growing up, he was kept away from those dances. Yet because he could hear (and heard about) those dances, they became part of his first memories of dance anyway. That’s, in part, what he meant when he says, “I believe deeply that I am ancient,” despite his youth.

Peter Sellars, so visibly moved by Linyekula’s story of maturing as dancer in the Congo, could not help but tear up during a couple of intense moments in their conversations.   “In the same way the Dalai Lama left Tibet, I am glad you left the Congo,” Sellars said. “It turns out to be the keys for the future.”  Of course, Linyekula did not leave completely. In fact he returned to the Congo. It is just that the African choreographer publicly worries about what it means for him to be touring a lot, often premiering shows not in his native country but in France or sometimes the United States.

Linyekula’s “life work” (Sellars’s words) has been to address the legacy of war and atrocities in the choreographer’s native Democratic Republic of the Congo.  What difference does dancing, or art in general, make when you are repeatedly confronted with (as Linyekula puts it) war, crisis, war, crisis, war?

“We now know there is nothing far away, and that it is all connected,” Sellars told the audience, in an attempt to explain why Linyekula’s dance work is not something that is happening in a faraway land but has the deepest connections with our daily lives as Westerners.  Based on his visits to Africa, Sellars described Kisangani as  “a city of sorrows, caught between Ugandan and Rwandan armies,” where the rivers are “still mass graves.”  The Congo’s greatest export is coltan, which is used to drive capitalist innovations in our computers and cell phones, and yet the country refuses to acknowledge coltan’s material significance. It’s a shadow economy. “The coltan is also speaking in those places,” Sellars said. “And they speak in your pockets.”  Later in the evening, Sellars adds, “We are sitting in the ruins of the Congo in this room.”

Sellars went on to describe an African country that does its darndest to make everything extremely difficult: to create systems and topographies that allow for “the maximum inability of people to do simplest thing to do.” “The last letter that was delivered in the Congo was in 1958,” Sellars said. “The only thing that functions there is not the army, not the transportation, not the post office, but culture.”

Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula | Photo by Agathe Poupeney
Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula | Photo by Agathe Poupeney

Linyekula’s career is a dancer is a testament to Sellars’s acute observation.  In 2001, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire, former Belgian Congo, and former independent state of Congo), Linyekula created Studios Kabako in Kinshasa, a space dedicated to dance and theatre. In 2006, Studios Kabako moved to Kisangani and extended to other artistic fields including music, film, and video. It supports training programs, research, and the production and touring of new work by young Congolese artists. With Vienna-based architect Bärbel Müller, Linyekula is working on a series of three cultural centers meant to stimulate the circulation of ideas and creativity through the urban body. The residency / lab c enter should open in 2015.

In Le Cargo, Linyekula tells his story twice, the second time in low light, accompanied by a computer slide-show of images from village life.  “Dance is refusing to acknowledge that speech is part of my body,” he said. “It is all about the body all the time. How much do we allow our body to be with the world? This” — at this point he tapped his right thigh, almost as if he were going to get up and dance — “is a dangerously powerful thing. In a country where political speech is forbidden, perhaps dance can protect you. I’m a dancer. Yeah, you can burn books, but that the antennae of this body has registered are there [inside it].  You cannot ignore the body, or ignore it at your own risk. ”   | randy gener, in the theater of One World 

Here’s a short excerpt from Le Cargo:

Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula
Le Cargo, de Faustin Linyekula

Le Cargo
Faustin Linyekula
Co-presented with the Museum for African Art, Tuesday, September 18 at 8pm
FIAF, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street (between Park and Madison Avenue)
Advance $20, Day-of $25, FIAF Members $15, Student Rush $10

About Crossing The Line

Crossing the Line is the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)’s annual fall festival presenting interdisciplinary works and performances created by artists from around the world in New York. The festival provides opportunities for New Yorkers to explore the dialogue between artist and participant, examine how artists help re-imagine the world, and engage in the vital role artists play as critical thinkers and catalysts for social evolution. Curated by Lili Chopra, Artistic Director of FIAF, Simon Dove, Director of the Herberger Institute School of Dance at Arizona State University, and Gideon Lester, Director of Theater Programs at Bard College, Crossing the Line is initiated and produced by FIAF in partnership with leading cultural institutions and takes place this year from September 14–October 14, 2012.

Inaugurated in 2007, Crossing the Line has enjoyed increasingly strong audience response from diverse segments of the New York City area, as well as critical acclaim. The festival was voted “Best of 2009” and “Best of 2010” by Time Out New York, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has said, “The French Institute Alliance Française’s annual Crossing the Line has carved out a particular identity as an invigorating, unpredictable, occasionally provocative mix of genres and disciplines…It’s the artistic equivalent of a splash of water on the face.”

About the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

FIAF’s mission is to create and offer New Yorkers innovative and unique programs in education and the arts that explore the evolving diversity and richness of French cultures. FIAF seeks to generate new ideas and promote cross cultural dialogue through partnerships and new platforms of expression. http://www.fiaf.org

About the Museum for African Art

The Museum for African Art is dedicated to increasing public understanding and appreciation of the arts and cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora. Founded in 1984, the Museum is internationally acknowledged as a preeminent organizer of exhibitions and publications related to historical and contemporary African art, with programs that are as diverse as the continent itself. Throughout the Museum’s history it has been heralded as a leader in the field, pioneering the way African art is presented and interpreted. Find out about upcoming programs and exhibitions at http://www.africanart.org.

Here is another short excerpt of Le Cargo:

 

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