At 74, Germaine Acogny, the Paris-based, Sénégalese matriarch of contemporary African dance, still has the power to astonish, making the solo, “Mon Élue Noire” (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2,” choreographed for her by Ballet du Nord director, Olivier Dubois in 2015 and set to Stravinsky’s musical shocker, “Le sacre du printemps,” equally electrifying—and surprisingly relevant. From the score’s hauntingly familiar solo bassoon opening to the closing chord, which Stravinsky himself disparagingly referred to as “a noise,” this dance, first choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913 for the Ballets Russes and tackled by scads of terpsichores since, jolts with a singularity not soon forgotten.
Raising issues of colonialism, primitivism and African womanhood, with Acogny occasionally reciting text (in French) from “Discourse on Colonialism,” the 1955 essay by the poet and politician Aimé Césaire, the work, which received its West Coast premiere over the weekend, takes place in a black box, which could also serve as a cage (Dubois is credited with the creation).
Dressed only in black leggings and bra, with a swath of black fabric that variously served as a head covering, cape and skirt (costumes by Chrystel Zingiro), the bald-headed Acogny began in darkness, a small flame visible as she lit her pipe, the proverbial calm before the storm, musical and otherwise. (The pipe seems to be a staple in Acogny’s repertory, as this reviewer, when covering her at the 2006 Lyon Biennale, noted that she smoked one then, as well.)
Integral to the work is Emmanuel Gary’s deft lighting—minimal, and at times vertical grids that illuminated the box, with Acogny, who, with husband Helmut Vogt, founded a school, École des Sables (School of the Sands) in a Sénégalese fishing village in the late 1990s, revealed in all her glory: the black body contained, but not for long, as she stomped and clapped to the pizzicato strings that soon yielded to those familiar, yet ever dense, polyrhythms.
These were astounding moments, and whether the dancer was seated, legs splayed, or standing in a fierce warrior pose, hands on hips and legs in a wide stance, Acogny riveted. Was she trapped or in command? When she raised one arm, this was decidedly a Black power salute.
The beauty of the imagery, whether Acogny flashed a demonic smile and looked like a Stepin Fetchit character (the African-American vaudevillian, comedian and film actor who was stereotyped as lazy or simple-minded), laughing wildly to the dissonant score or assuming animal poses on all fours, this was an in-your-face, tour-de-force performance that by its very nature was guaranteed to provoke.
Although the movement is based in traditional African dances, it is richly contemporized, a violent streak with a near nod to martial arts also on view. Acogny’s pacing and semi-strutting pierced the shadowy space, her occasional butt-shaking offering a dollop of humor. But when the performer removed the black cloth from her hips and enveloped her head with it, this writer saw the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib, the dancer’s heaving torso contractions making the tableau that much more intense.
Feet were often rooted to the ground, with gesticulating arms flailing, but not without purpose: This was energy unbottled, unleashed; this is the genius of Acogny. And when she reclined, casually smoking her pipe and bathed in a purplish light, the imagery recalled Ingres’s painting, La Grande Odalisque. Taking a puff and blowing smoke, she sported a sly Cheshire cat-like smile. Alternating between quiet, near static moments and the inevitable upheavals found in Stravinsky’s iconic music—as well as the occasional scream emanating from Acogny—the work also featured scenes swirling with fog.
Nearly 30 minutes into the 40-minute solo, Acogny, back to the audience, removed her black bra and donned a white one, prelude to her removing the floor panels and, yes, semi-descending into the floor. Engulfed in white vaporous clouds, the performer could have been sinking into Hades.
Mysteriously, she then began splashing white paint on the dark, now upright panels, a volcano spewing mythical ash, at the same time covering herself with the stuff. Bobbing up and down, arms swooping, she was blanketed in white. Is she an apparition? A deity in the pagan story that is, finally, the “Rite?” As Acogny’s paternal grandmother was a Yoruba priestess, albeit one she’d never met, this lineage certainly seasoned the dance with a deep resonance, one sprung from her bones.
Then, of course, there is that title, “Mon Élue Noire (My Black Chosen One).” Racist? Sexist? And what about the notion that Acogny is also a prideful septuagenarian? Talk about issues! Having a French, 40-something male choreographer affix his ideas on a performer that happens to be an African female may seem strange, if not wrong-headed. But if this were, indeed, the case, Acogny would not be giving this fearless work to the world, and with it, indelible pieces of her own true self.
That said, all hail the goddess who walks—and dances—among us, Germaine Acogny.