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Les Ballet Africains to offer a display of music’s roots

Stewart Oksenhorn

In its performances tomorrow and Wednesday at the Aspen District Theatre, the Guinean-based dance company Les Ballets Africains will perform works that date back to the group’s inception in 1952.Dance pieces from Guinea that are a half-century old may seem like the ultimate in exotic fare. But the company’s managing director said audiences should see plenty of familiar moves in the performance.”Anything you saw on MTV in the ’80s, the urban rap dance – that comes right out of Guinea, Mali and Senegal,” said Mamoudou Conde, who has been Les Ballets Africains’ managing director for six years. He also manages two other Guinean performance troupes, Les Percussion de Guinee and Le Ballet Nacional Djoliba. “Which means the source of jazz, hip-hop dance comes from Africa. So does the music – the blues, the jazz, the reggae. That whole rhythm you can pull out of this performance. When you listen, you hear all the rhythms from hip-hop to reggae to rock ‘n’ roll.”Conde recalls the time, a decade ago, when Stewart Copeland, former drummer of the Police, saw Les Percussions de Guinee perform. Copeland went on to tour with the group.”When you see that, you know they’re finding something familiar in what we do,” said Conde. “People who know about the music find a link between the culture of Africa and the culture here. Because it’s all one culture.”Les Ballets Africains – which is performing here as part of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Aspen Dance Festival – has been demonstrating the African roots of dance and music for better than 50 years. Over that time, the company has appeared virtually everywhere.”There’s no place you can think of that they haven’t performed,” said Conde, a native of Guinea who lives in Madison, Wis.The colorful, high-energy troupe – which features 17 performers, musicians, acrobats and dancers in its performances here – was likened by New York Newsday to the city’s electrical system.And few companies have a history as long and rich as Les Ballet Africains. The group was founded by Guinean choreographer Keita Fodeba in 1952, when he was living in France.”He founded it to struggle against the misinterpretation of some people about Africa,” said Conde. “He wanted to form a company to show people the positive of Africa, not the negative.”Conde invited dancers from all over west Africa to come to France and join Les Ballets Africains. When Guinea won its independence from the French in 1958, Fodeba gave the company to the country and watched it flourish under Guinea’s first president, Sékou Touré.”He was a very cultural man,” said Conde, a relative of Fodeba’s. “He thought culture was important for all of Africa. He created a system that could preserve and honor the culture of Guinea, all of Africa.”For the 2002-03 season, dubbed the 50-Year Golden Jubilee, Les Ballets Africains created a program that took dances from throughout the company’s history, and included works representing the separate cultures of Guinea’s four distinct regions: forest, highlands, coastal and midland. The company is presenting the Golden Jubilee program on its current tour, giving audiences a taste not only of Africa, but the history of one of its most prominent cultural ambassadors.While Conde expects audiences to see similarities between Western and African culture, he added that there are definite differences as well.Asked how Guinean dance compared to traditional Western ballet, Conde laughed: “Our dancers are faster, very fast. You cannot compare it to any other dance.”Les Ballets Africains performs Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre. They will also perform a children’s matinee at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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