The Scales of Memory

On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, in association with the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, presented Les écailles de la mémoire (The Scales of Memory) at the Byham Theater. The show was a collaborative performance between the New York-based all-female company Urban Bush Women and the Senegal-based all-male Compagnie Jant-Bi. It featured seven dancers from each company.

The companies began work on the production in December 2005 with a series of creative residencies hosted by the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and L’Ecole des Sables. The show premiered three years later, opening last month at the University of Florida.

Les écailles de la mémoire focuses on the themes of resistance, memory, and love — framing them as the common link between the African and African-American cultures. The production also focuses on gender differences and the differences between dancers who share a common ancestry but are historically, geographically, and culturally divided. These differences become apparent at the beginning of the show, when all 14 dancers walk slowly forward, shouting their names and family histories to the crowd. The show closes with a similar act: The dancers shout again and unite as one giant voice.

In one of the show’s solo skits, an Urban Bush Woman dancer moves to the center of the stage. She laughs at the word “Creole” and twists and stomps her body mockingly; she says later, in French: “I am African. My race is African! And you, you are French!” To emphasize her point, she hoots and twists in a way that resembles tribal battle behavior — using it as a tool against the violation of personal identity instead of a prelude to a physical battle.

The men of Compagnie Jant-Bi resist against a more physical target. Marching in line military style, the men line up to use their bright red shirts as weapons to fight off invisible flies, mosquitoes, implied pursuers, and even each other. Running in place, always reaching out ahead, they tell the story of a long journey filled with peril and enemies through dance. Often wild, the dances included flailing, of arms, legs, or red shirts.

A main motif of the show was light. At times, dancers from both companies reached out to a square or circle of light. Their hands were spastic and their faces in anguish as they sat looking up or down at plain, white light. The light was a metaphor for many ideas, from God to the memory of better times. The light was both positive and negative; sometimes it would encourage their dance, other times it would throw them to the floor, leaving them to crawl away.

The dancers from Urban Bush Women were unforgiving and powerful on stage. They were sexy, proud, strong, sassy, and funny. They succeeded in portraying the African-American identity, often snapping their fingers and shouting “What’s up?” without reserve.

This created a funny contrast with the men of Jant-Bi. One dance sequence had both groups come together; they slow-danced to a Caribbean-influenced dance and fell in love. As comedic relief, one man of Jant-Bi, as a man of Senegal, pretended to not follow the dance steps. This led to him shaking and humping his partner, a woman, forcing her to fling him off and angrily stand over his body, her foot upon his neck.

Overall, the show was well performed. Although some parts were slow, boring, or confusing, Les écailles de la mémoire still sent a message and succeeded in blending two cultures in a fusion of contemporary and traditional dance. Although they are of different genders and cultures, the men of Jant-Bi and the women of Urban Bush Woman share a linked history and identity.

Urban Bush Women was founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Through dance, the company aims to reveal the untold and undertold histories of disenfranchised people, particularly the women of the African Diaspora community.

Compagnie Jant-Bi was founded in 1998 by choreographer Germaine Acogny. She brought together the dancers who had participated in the first professional workshop of the International Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dancers, called L’Ecole des Sables, in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal via her artistic direction. Today, Compagnie Jant-Bi continues to work closely with the center. The group’s main goal is to supply African dancers with professional training in traditional and contemporary dance.