Writer Betty Caplan reports on a unique dance style that blends classical ballet, Spanish and Oriental flavours and traditional African dances to honour, celebrate, imitate and poke fun at the gloriously beautiful but vain flamingos of Kenya’s Lake Nakuru.
What makes dance funny? I found myself musing on this question as I watched Kenya Performing Arts Group’s performance of ‘Flamingo Flamenco’ during the weekend of February 3-4, 2006 at the Village Market auditorium (not a place to enhance any kind of art at all (a soulless construction without even the basic facilities for artists.) The work, choreographed by Israeli Miriam Rother, takes a look at a flamboyant, gloriously beautiful but vain African bird, the flamingo. In a series of dances, the performers honour, imitate and poke fun at the Flamingo of Lake Nakuru. En masse, by the side of Kenya’s famous soda lake, it is a unique sight. KPAG has been going for over a year, directed by Odak Onyango and Saskia
Ottenhoff, and has, with very little funding or support, established an academy and a performance group, achieving an impressive level of mastery of several dance techniques; ballet, mime, modern, Spanish, and of course their own indigenous movement styles.
Although a part of the classical ballet tradition, KPAG also breaks with this tradition, fusing it with Spanish and Oriental flavours. Between the first performances in September and the most recent ones, the improvement in the confidence of the dancers was remarkable. Brenda Adoyo, Syeline Mbelete and Sidi Baya are partnered by Victor Mdetei, Moses Otieno and Dennis Magero.
So back to my first question: what makes dance funny? I ask because it so rarely is. American choreographer Twyla Tharp is one of the few who has been able to do it, taking the theme of the rivalry between narcissistic dancers elbowing each other out of the way to hog the front of the stage in her much acclaimed “Push Comes to Shove.” Miriam Rother has similarly taken up this idea and made the birds look rather silly in their desperation to compete for the prize mate. Naturally, a great deal of time has to be spent by the bird in preening, ensuring that feathers are in good shape for flying, and this is reflected in the piece. In their flaming pink costumes, they are always gazing into imaginary mirrors, like the mythical narcissus, in love with their own images.
The evening is rich, witty and diverse: the birds flirt, snap at each other, show off, flap and make some very strange but familiar noises. They snort, snarl, and quacking. The business of finding a mate is pretty serious. The “ladies” play hard to get: otherwise they wouldn’t be valued, would they? Contemptuously, they mob together to look down their long beaks at their suitors. “We’re not impressed!” is the clear message. Facial expressions cover a wide spectrum from modest decorum to outright contempt. Thus does the battle of the sexes go on amongst the birds and the bees.
The themes are greatly enhanced by the costumes: two of the men wear simple pink ruffs around their necks on top of bare chests whilst the girls have shaded costumes that turn into long skirts for the splendid Spanish sequence (not quite flamenco, but nothing is quite what it seems.) Rother makes fun of the grand Russian classic Swan Lake which characteristically incorporates “divertissements” revealing what Russians imagined Spanish abandon to look like, all, of course, within the constraints of the classical form. She has succeeded in creating a fresh new piece on young Kenyan dancers that is very close to home. It does not set out to have the finesse of the New York City.
Ballet; its roughness and spontaneity are half of the charm and its aim is to give a local audience something they can recognize and enjoy. Live music devised by Kenya Conservatoire Strings Quartet and Kenya National Theatre Drummers, directed by Atigala Luvai, is similarly highly inventive using clashes between wildly differing styles to achieve its effect: Mozart minuets, De Souza marches and expert drumming by Richard Oneko. Cynthia Wanja stepped in at the last minute to replace the missing cellist. The climax of the evening is again the luminous solo originally choreographed and performed by Odak Onyango which introduces a dark and menacing tone into the piece: using his immense skills in mime and physical theatre, he fashions a shady, death-like creature whose presence sounds the threat to the environment due to human greed and lack of caring. Perhaps the best thing of all is the way the performance defies expectations: whatever you thought you were going to get, you were wrong. The element of surprise is constantly there.