Criticism is no easy feat, akin to building a herd of balloon animals at a six-year-old’s birthday party. As you try to accurately construct a hippo out of a latex tube, a chubby kindergartner dressed like a Ninja Turtle, cake stained across his jaw, hurdles insults at you, even though he’s never seen a goddamn hippo in his life. Meanwhile, Mom’s pissed because you made her kid cry, and all you’re left with is twenty bucks, a bloat of mutated Hippopotamidae, and enough clown make-up to turn a tranny’s head.
In other words, it’s tough.
Heddy Maalem’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” performed last night at the Guillard auditorium, was even harder – it was in French.
Mr. Maalem, an Algerian who grew up in France, was kind enough to take audience questions after the performance. He said that his decision to perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with African dancers was informed by the fact that in, “Algeria I grew up carrying the war in myself, and all of West Africans carry the war of colonization.” The evocative ensemble performance depicted the dancers as trapped in a changing world, fighting with fists punching the air, trying to make sense of the evolution.
Interjected between group numbers, Maalem used video installations with only a few dancers on stage. One scene featured a gritty film reel of a bus crossing a bridge, coupled with the hum of the city as the dancers gathered in a ball on the floor and pulsed in and out of the buzz. The final installation had just one dancer on stage. He shook violently as if a force within him was trying to escape. “I nailed the two feet to the ground,” Maalem said in regards to the movement. “I told him God was above him.”
Maalem is convinced that Stravinsky wrote “Rite of Spring” with some premonition about the impending world war. Using that as his inspiration, Maalem quickly made a connection to the current state of modern day Africa. That understanding greatly helped a post-performance appreciation of the piece. The choreography initially felt underwhelming — so many collective sequences with simple gestures left me wanting a place for my eyes to focus. Though strong and agile, the dancers appeared limited in their movement. This was also quickly explained by one of the performers after the show, when an audience member asked what traditions the dancers studied.
“We all come from very different places. I don’t have to tell you how far Nigeria is from Mali,” he said. He explained how avant-garde and modern dance are just being introduced to most African countries. Very few of these dancers have trained in the same method. So Maalem was charged with creating not only a common language for all the dancers to communicate through, but also a common language of movement.
With that in mind, the performance is an incredible concept. Maalem has created his own language and the dancers speak it with ease and beauty. However, it makes me wonder (since the explanation was necessary), if art speaks for itself, should it have been?
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $10-$50 • 1 hour • June 7 at 8 p.m.; June 8 at 2 p.m. • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • (843) 579-3100