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Dance of Death

Smaïl Kanouté is a French-Malian graphic designer, dancer, and choreographer based in Paris, and the founder of a Compagnie Vivons, which combines visual art, film, and live performance. His background in dance is interesting: While training at the National School of Decorative Arts, he had a residency in Rio de Janeiro, and it was there, inspired by rich dance cultures of Brazil, that he began dancing. As he has said in interviews, he is largely self-taught; his approach incorporates elements of contemporary dance and various urban forms related to hip hop, including the Brazilian baile funk and pasinho, krump, and popping.

Performance

Smaïl Kanouté, “Never Twenty-One”

Place

FIAF Florence Gould Hall, New York, NY, September 27, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Salomon Mpondo-Dicka in Smaïl Kanouté's “Never Twenty-One.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

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His “Never Twenty One,” performed at the FIAF Florence Gould Hall as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, is a meditation on violence and death, in particular the violent deaths of far too many young black men—who, as the title says, will never make it to twenty-one—around the world. He explores his theme through the prism of three cities, New York, Johannesburg, and Rio (though interestingly not the Parisian banlieues)  incorporating stories and voices from those countries, as well as music and dance from each of those settings.

Kanouté is an example of a very contemporary kind of artist: one with a global, multi-disciplinary point of view, who moves between cultures and languages with complete naturalness. In this, his work is like hip-hop itself, a form of expression that spans the globe.  Alas, violence is also a global and ubiquitous phenomenon, though one that affects societies in an unequal way. As one of the voices in “Never Twenty One” expresses in French, a large proportion of the victims of urban gun violence are Black, and often young and male. “Never Twenty One,” a trio for three men—Kanouté, Aston Bonaparte, and Salomon Mpondo-Dicka—is focused on them. 

Aston Bonapart in Smaïl Kanouté's “Never Twenty-One.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

Stories, music, dance, graphic design. All have their place in “Never Twenty One.” The men have words printed in white on their dark skin, an image reminiscent of Bill T. Jones’ wearing of Keith Haring’s designs on his own skin in the 1980’s. Here, the designs contain meaning: “indigenous,” “at peace,” “pasinho.” The work begins with lights dancing in the dark, their patterns suggesting both searchlights and fireworks. Their luminous patterns are sometimes beautiful, sometimes alarming. Then we hear voices, speaking in English: that of a mortician who prepares the bodies of shooting victims for burial; a mother who has lost her son, and whose “heart hurts just thinking about it,” twenty-five years later. 

At first we see the dancers in parts: just the feet, just the torso. Finally, when the entire body is illuminated, the real dancing begins. Often, the dancers’ movements—the fast footwork of pasinho, mesmerizing arm patterns—appear unrelated to what is being said. But there are moments in which the stories and movement collide. A hand on the heart, arms behind the head, collapsing bodies. And more and more, as the piece goes along, a violence within the movement itself—shuddering, moving jerkily, slicing—and then, between the men. They grapple with each other, and punch, or gang up, two against one. 

The sound-score alternates between words to music, in English, French, Portuguese. To Kanye West’s “Hands On,” about being stopped by the police after he “made a left when I should’ve made a right,” the men spin and slash at the air, until one falls and twitches on the ground, and then lies still. To another musical passage, Aston Bonaparte moves mesmerizingly, with a kind of inner vibration that spreads to his arms, and even to his long hair, lashing the air. His solo is the dance highlight of “Never Twenty One.”

Salomon Mpondo-Dicka in Smaïl Kanouté's “Never Twenty-One.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

The hour-long work is intermittently powerful. The dancers are wonderful, the material is compelling, and the stories cut deep. What it lacks is a compelling structure. Sometimes, “Never Twenty One” feels smore like a series of sketches than a fully developed work. Kanouté is not over-literal, thankfully, but at the same time there are stretches during which the aural level of the piece—the voices, the songs—are simply too disconnected from the affect and rhythm of the dancing. They appear to be occurring on two different, somewhat unconnected planes, and rather than complement each other, they divide our attention.

That said, it is not easy to make art about the distressing realities of our world. Performing pain can easily appear trivial or clichéd in comparison with what is really happening around us. Kanouté’s “Never Twenty One” avoids that trap, an accomplishment in itself. 

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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