Fire on stage

Mar 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Germaine Acogny have a couple of things in common: their African heritage and their successes as renowned choreographers for reputable dance companies. Add one more credit to that which they share: Recently they've been shaking up the dance scene with "Les Écailles de la Mémoire" ("The Scales of Memory"), a highly charged performance incorporating dance, music and theater.

"Scales" is a work about individual and group identity within a community. It brings together two distinctly different dance companies: Zollar's Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women, a company of seven female African-American modern dancers, mostly Christian, and Acogny's Senegal-based Compagnie Jant-Bi, a troupe of seven French-speaking Muslims performing contemporary African dance. The two troupes felt an immediate, strong connection when they met by chance at a dance conference in 2004.

As the directors and dancers first discussed collaboration, the question became one of working through their differences. Could it be done? They set out on a journey to find out.

It wasn't always easy, notes choreographer Germaine Acogny, on the phone in Toulouse, France, where the woman often cited as "the mother of African dance" is recuperating from routine foot surgery.

"How the Urban Bush Women move is not the same," Acogny says. "Their music is not the same. Their words are not the same. How they live is not the same." But she says the respect she and Zollar had for each other helped. "We were able to communicate well with each other and the dancers, based on this respect. If I told Jawole, 'That is not accepted in my country,' she would say, 'OK.'"

The two women also spent time in each other's homelands to inspire ideas. In 2005, Urban Bush Women visited the Jant-Bi dancers at the International Center for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances, in the historic fishing village of Toubab Diallaw, Senegal. Established in 1996 by Acogny and her husband, Helmut Vogt, the center offers professional workshops in African dance to both African and Western dancers. The two companies toured local villages and traveled to the Isle of Goree, location of the infamous "door of no return," where captive Africans walked into the island's slave house, never to return.

When the Jant-Bi dancers joined up with Urban Bush Women in America's deep South, they visited African-American museums, holy-rolling churches, a "hanging" tree and 19th century plantations in order to get at the roots of the African-American experience as it exists today.

Numerous meetings and rehearsals followed. Dancers joined group discussions and were given questions to ponder, such as "What is love?" According to Nora Chipaumire, a dancer for Urban Bush Woman, this led to improvised movement both solo and in groups that addressed collective memory.

"We were confronted with the male point of view. We also learned how to negotiate the space with men," continues Chipaumire, who is also the troupe's assistant artistic director. "I've come to see that space and time can be engendered and that men appropriate space, time, and movement very differently than women."

As they negotiated new territory, the dancers uncovered commonalities between their lives and histories. Three themes emerged which inform the dance: love, resistance and memory.

The resulting performance unfolds in an unbroken chain of powerful vignettes, set to guitar music, Sengalese drumming, poetry and sounds from nature, along with dancers' chants. In a skillful fusion of modern dance with both traditional and contemporary African dance forms, the performers shuffle, stamp and glide their way across the stage, evoking powerful images of slavery as well as humorous interactions between the sexes. In costumes reminiscent of urban street wear and rural African garments, the dancers charge the space with unyielding conviction and fire. What begins to emerge is a powerful, life-affirming exploration of what it means to be human.

"In French, the title of the dance, 'Les Ecailles de la Memoire,' is much more poetic and nuanced in meaning," Chipaumire says. "It's evocative of a shedding that takes place in the work."

And apparently in life, as well.

"Les Écailles de la Mémoire" is at 8 p.m. Friday, March 28, and Saturday, March 29, at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. Call the University Musical Society at 734-764-2538 for tickets or visit

Joanna McNamara writes about dance for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]