The strength of African women keeps coming to the fore and that was readily apparent this past November as Compagnie TchéTché–dance troupe from the Ivory Coast—performed their latest show, Dimi, for a sold-out audience in the McGuire Theater of the Walker Art Center.
The dance performance, Dimi, which translates as sorrow and pain in the Malinké language of Guinea, doesn’t end in distress. Béatrice Kombé, the production’s choreographer and artistic director, tells a story through movement that includes grief, yet resolves in the reclaiming of women’s power and purpose.
Bit by bit, through the voices of various artists, academia, and social activists, the image of Africa’s female population is shedding its centuries-long convention of silent passivity. Kombé maintains this trend, along with her three other female dancers and her all-male band of musicians. The troupe exhibits great power in both physical action as well as musical score.
At their first performance Tuesday evening, November 14th, music composed by Ivory Coast-born, Bomou Aboukar and Baba Galle Kante, breaks the black silence with simple lyric notes played on both Fulian flute and guitar.
The flute, a musical bow that looks like the bow of an archer, with a single string stretched across the two ends, then played with the mouth resonating against the wooden bow and a finger plucking the string, has long been used as a medium for telling stories in Africa.
A faintly lit dancer stands on stage, clad in black with hair worn in an Afro style. As she moves across the floor with slow, defeated steps and gestures, a trio of dancers, not instantly recognizable as either male or female, joins her. In various combinations, over the next sixty minutes, they move from anguish, including death, to control and focus.
At times during the performance, one dancer lifts up another dancer much as a couple of classical ballet dancers pair together in ballet sautés. The absence of obvious gender-identifying costume and movement allows the audience to take in the story apart from preconceived ideas of how a female dancer ought to act.
The hour-long presentation breaks briefly as most of the audience files out of the theater, and then continues with an informal question and answer session for those of us who remain.
Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the Walker, introduces Jean-Pierre Gueguen, TchéTché’s tour manager. After introducing the dance company, both performers and musicians, Gueguen translates Kombé’s responses to the audience’s questions.
Kombé describes in French how she’s taken traditional African dance and converted it fit into a universal art form. Dimi specifically begins with representing the pain and suffering of the African woman, then moves from isolation to a coming together, creating solidarity and a communion among the four dancers.
"The work of Dimi begins with the work of women as marginalized people," says Kombé. The production itself is the second in a series of four works that the Walker has slated for their current season. Africa NOW: Currents of a Continent is a series dedicated to looking at a new thread coming out of Africa, explains Bither.
Dimi evolved from a common theme provided by Kombé, then developed separately by the dancers and the musicians. The two individually created pieces meet up later to blend into one cohesive work. "The purpose of doing it this way is to create a richer idea," says Kombé.
Of particular significance is the cooperative working conditions between both the women and the men. Since the subject of Dimi propounds the dismal state of the African women’s past condition, in a sense, accusing the male population of treating women as second-class citizens, embarrassment in the least as well as indignation could arise. However Bamou Aboubakar doesn’t see it that way.
"When I play on stage, I’m neither a man nor a woman, I am a musician," he says. The same sentiment could be said of the dancers.