Implied in Crossing the Line Festival’s title are several possible interpretations of the phrase—crossing borders, boundaries of the known, even perhaps going too far. Inviting Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula to create a work at the Met Museum was an inspired, if potentially prickly, enterprise on behalf of the museum and the festival. On the one hand, it showed how the relatively stodgy museum has at least one finger on the pulse of work produced by vibrant international artists through its MetLiveArts series, which frequently situates performances within galleries (this took place in the Vélez Blanco Patio, just off the main lobby). On the other, the performance raised pertinent questions about cultural appropriation, awarding value to another country’s heritage, and about the exact nature of the monetary and symbolic capital of an artwork. It basically held up a mirror to the Met’s essential culture of acquisition and the subsequent owning and warehousing of artifacts from other nations.
All this is a lot to deal with in the roughly fifty minutes comprising Banataba. Moya Michael joined Linyekula in performing on not so much a stage as a rectangle of floor where a couple of sculptures (one covered) are located, and a small platform is awkwardly festooned with a black skirt. They pass a burlap bundle back and forth, its contents eerily resembling the silhouette of a child’s body. In fact, the object is a set of wooden parts with which to construct a symbolic human statue. In a compelling anecdote, Linyekula tells of wanting to have a Congo-based artist craft a sculpture to be added to the Met’s collection, only to be told that it would be nearly impossible as there are a lot of steps involved in acquisitions. Instead, it was suggested, why not call it a theatrical prop? Linyekula winds up referring to this little man, the symbolic crux of his piece which became emotionally powerful as the performance went on, as “just a piece of wood.” It was a poignant critique of the often arbitrary (and hegemonic) value system of art in our society.
Crossing the Line Festival
September 9, 2017
SUR LES TRACES DE DINOZORD (IN SEARCH OF DINOZORD)
September 22 – September 23, 2017
Between anecdotes, the two meander about the space in Linyekula’s slinky, hip-swaying saunter, or bounce their arms off of their thighs, their strikes gaining in power and speed, eventually drumming their chests as if to draw attention to their building sense of individuality, or perhaps a collective national identity. The two shed their black cloth cloaks, and he removes his top in to emphasize his tough, sinewy body. While the close proximity to the audience at times broke an optimal state of transcendence on the part of the performers, both dancers’ focus served mainly to rise above the artificiality of the setting of the Met gallery.
We were also given the opportunity to see a larger-scaled work by Linyekula and his Congo-based company, Studios Kabako, who performed In Search of Dinozord at NYU’s Skirball Center. It’s clear that Linyekula has so much to tell about his homeland, but this work is so bursting with ideas, characters, and plotlines that it’s ultimately dizzying, despite moments of contemplative poetry. Linyekula, in whiteface, sits downstage on the floor, behind a small wooden frame and an open laptop. The other five male performers cluster on the other side of the stage. They wear no make-up, and all wear white shirts. A line of orange LEDs traces the stage’s perimeter, and a red column splices the upstage wall.
There is bountiful text, mostly spoken by Linyekula, but also writings by Antoine Vumilia Muhindo (“Vumi”), who actually appears live via Skype from Sweden where he is in exile after escaping from a Kinshasa prison while serving time for political crimes. Lines of text are projected on an elegant plywood panel, and are also beamed from a projector held by Linyekula and aimed at various surfaces in the theater. The countertenor Serge Kakudji sings lines from Mozart’s Requiem; the high melodic lines radiating from his athletic physique amplify the sense of disorientation. A line is repeated that the Requiem is one of the last flares of virtuosity, but apart from the process of mourning that it is meant to serve, it’s not clear the relation to the rest of what’s happening on stage. In fact, there are so many ideas coursing through the work that it’s difficult to focus on one in particular.
The piece is heavily theatrical and text-based, but there are a few dance scenes that haunt the memory. Linyekula doffs his shirt, exposing a chalky cross on his chest, and begins his foxy prowl around a mound of papers and documents dumped out of a red metal trunk—supposedly the archive of the deceased writer Kabako. Sinking into his bent knees, yet light as a feather, he slinks and pulses in a circle around the trove, which emanates an aura of static ideas—perhaps squandered, perhaps preserved, awaiting discovery. The documents are dumped back into the suitcase, ready to be transported elsewhere; the men rotate their pelvises in an odd, silent synchronicity. And toward the end, Jeannot Kumbonyeki injects some visceral excitement in a virtuosic hip-hop inflected solo. It helps that he’s accompanied by Jimi Hendrix music rather than the somewhat emotionally confusing, and at times overlapping, classical strains which precede it.
It is clear that Linyekula has plentiful stories to share, and he possesses a keen theatrical flair and aesthetic that is not out of place in New York’s more conceptual performance lairs. His piece at the Met succeeded because it zeroed in on a few ideas, and the artworks (disguised as props) paired with the choreography, told a compelling story. At the Skirball, a more complex political scenario unfolded, but was paired incongruously with Mozart. I suppose that’s the point, the tension between the “pinnacle” of western Classicism versus distant Congolese elements that were reminders of political strife. Fewer ideas here would help to focus the work, made by a prolific, at times poetic inventor whose emerging prominence on the international stage was reinforced this month with three separate events, including a larger group performance at Weeksville Heritage Center. No doubt we’ll have the chance to learn more from this intriguing voice.