But he was not there to teach them how to dance, he said. His approach is not a physical technique so much as “a way of thinking about who we are,” a form of poetry and storytelling written with the body. “My dance is about who I am,” he said.
He instructed them to take their turn in introducing themselves, by improvising danced self-portraits that ended the way he had started, filling in the phrase “My name is…” And he showed them what he meant, commanding attention with the subtlest undulations of his small, wiry body.
Fixing the Broken Circle
Mr. Linyekula grew up in Kisangani, his country’s third largest city and the probable model for “A Bend in the River,” V. S. Naipaul’s 1979 novel of hellish post-colonial chaos. When Mr. Linyekula was old enough to attend college, Mobutu Sese Seko’s government shut down the universities, so he studied in Kenya, tried theater in England, and was introduced to dance-theater by a choreographer from the Ivory Coast.
From the start, his own choreography has been concerned with his relationship to his country: the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is called now, or Zaire, as it was called when he was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. And his work has been defiantly personal. “I am showing the individual in a context where there is no space for individuals,” he said in an interview in Ballet-Dance.
He might have become an expatriate, but in 2001, he established Studios Kabako, a space dedicated to dance, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This visit to New York isn’t Mr. Linyekula’s first. But this time, he said, he wanted to stick around longer and meet people. In addition to “Festival of Dreams” (at Roberto Clemente Plaza in the Bronx on Sept. 23 and at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn on Sept. 24), he is debuting a duet called “Banataba” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Saturday and Sunday) and presenting the United States premiere of “In Search of Dinozord” (at New York University’s Skirball Center, Sept. 22 and 23) with his company, also called Studios Kabako.
The three shows, all part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival (in collaboration with MetLiveArts and N.Y.U. Skirball), serve as a good introduction to the breadth and distinctiveness of his work. They express his worldview, cleareyed about the most terrible facts yet not despairing. It’s an attitude that he tried to convey to the It’s Showtime NYC dancers in their first moments together.
“Back in Congo,” he told them, “we make a circle when we dance.” Circles, called cyphers, are the favorite configuration of hip-hop dancers as well, but Mr. Linyekula did not let them form one. Instead, he arranged them like an audience in a proscenium theater, in what he called “the colonial relationship.” Circles create and express community, he said. “But that is not the world we live in. The circle is broken, and if we want to make the circle again, we must take responsibility.”
This idea of responsibility lay beneath all of Mr. Linyekula’s suggestions to the dancers that day, and he returned to it often in an interview, suggesting it as the connection among the three projects. “What do we receive from those who walked here before us, and what do we pass on?” he asked.
“Banataba,” at the Metropolitan Museum, focuses on the inheritance part and Mr. Linyekula’s often-repeated formulation of his dancing as an attempt to remember his name.
“When you look at the history of my country,” he said, “it seems that because of the rupture of colonialism, all the old ways of recording history were broken. And the Western way — written history — doesn’t go back very far.”
So when Mr. Linyekula enters a museum, he is “in search of a broken piece of history.” Earlier this year, invited by the Metropolitan to interact with its collection of art from the Kingdom of Kongo (a historical category broader than current borders), he discovered a piece that had never been exhibited. It was from the Lengola people, his mother’s tribe.
This discovery prompted him to make a journey with his mother to her father’s village, where she had not been since 1975. “I didn’t know the history of my family past my grandfather, but now we know seven generations back,” he said. “The history is fragile, but it’s not lost.”
In “Banataba,” Mr. Linyekula will tell the story of that trip, and, more pointedly, of a religious sculpture he chose not to bring back to a Western museum. But it’s also about his interaction with an old friend, the South African dancer Moya Michael, and about the two of them together in the museum’s transplanted 16th-century Spanish patio.
“Being in a space with that many layers of history, your body vibrates differently,” Mr. Linyekula said. “It’s about putting my body where it will say what it knows, the things in my genes that connect me to generations past. That history may be broken, but it’s not lost, either.”
The Responsibility of Beauty
Mr. Linyekula created “In Search of Dinozord” in 2007, the year he moved Studios Kabako to Kisangani.
“This was the city where I had dreamt as a teenager of changing the world,” he recalled. “I wondered if it was still possible to dream there.” And, in the face of political corruption, child soldiers and senseless death, was it possible to make poetry and beauty?
“In Search of Dinozord” is an attempt to do that. It’s a ritual of mourning, set to Mozart’s “Requiem” and politicians’ speeches, with bodies quivering and crumpling to the ground.
“My name is Dinozord,” says the dancer whose solo ends the work, the youngest dancer in the piece. The solo makes space for the individual; it dreams of the future. The hip-hop in it speaks to the genre’s global reach, but it’s not a coincidence that the section resembles the rehearsal exercises that Mr. Linyekula gave to the It’s Showtime NYC dancers. Setting up others in this way is his method, his mission.
“It’s about building an army of people who question and are ready to take responsibility,” Mr. Linyekula said. “It’s about those who can take over, those who can continue.”
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