Everybody's always referring to America as "the melting pot," but our ethnic stew pales in comparison to that of Zaire. This young African nation, four times the size of Texas, is populated by members of more than 250 distinct ethnic groups who converse in not only five official languages -- Lingala, Swahili, Kikongo, Tshiluba and French -- but several hundred dialects. How, then, does a "national" artistic troupe deal with such awesome diversity and still send out a rich, undiluted message to its entire people?
Mobyem Mikanza, director of the National Dance Theatre of Zaire, has found alluring tools: ancient folk tales that teach and entertain, gloriously elastic and pulsing dances that speak through gesture and undulation, songs that lilt, sob, celebrate and heal. "Our mission is to share the experience of different tribes, to be a kind of medium, to make one new culture," declares this calm, reed-thin man in slow, precise English. He is sitting backstage at a Manhattan theater, waiting for his company to go on.
Though this is the company's first visit to the United States (their performances tomorrow and Monday at Lisner Auditorium mark the end of a month-long tour), Mikanza is familiar with this and other terrain. He received his B.A. in speech and drama from Fisk University in Nashville, studied French and history in Belgium, and since then has been actively involved in academic and artistic circles. This diversity of experience fits neatly into the man's clear vision of the unified theater forged from thousands of regional contributions.
"We are trying to keep our dances alive. Why are they dying? Because to practice, to know an African dance, you must be initiated. The initiation starts when you are very young. After perhaps 20 years, you have mastered the dance." Yet in modern-day Zaire, Mikanza explains, young people go to school, and in most regions, the initiation process no longer exists. "So now we must teach the dancers, and to teach an African dance is very hard, because it is not meant to be seen, to be in production. When you want to put a dance on stage, you must take it out of life."
Mikanza's solutions to this conflict between art for public presentation and art for personal sustenance are varied and innovative. In order to gather together as many types of music and dance as possible, he has, in the past, held contests between various tribes. After selecting the most intriguing dancers and performers, he and his collaborators stylize and codify the movements and songs, and train the company to dance and sing in a variety of modes. Songs are sung in their original languages, and wondrous musical instruments from all across the land -- a great caterpillarish xylophone, a guitar that seems to have leaped out of a Cubist painting, a tinkly thumbharp, and many resonant drums -- are employed. The result is an expansive, yet coherent whole forged from many divergent influences.
"Through the story line, we teach our people," says Mikanza. "We only choose plots that are very strong." "Nkenge," the troupe's current, evening-length piece, concerns a narcissistic lass who rejects all local suitors, choosing instead to marry a rich, mysterious acrobat who turns out to be none other than the devil. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of her demon husband, Nkenge, in a trance, returns to her village and undergoes the ministrations of a band of witch doctors. Though safe and healed, the young woman must face the scorn of her family and friends, and the piece ends with her pleading for forgiveness. "When people first saw 'Nkenge,' " Mikanza recalls, "they asked, 'Why is the ending so sad? Why don't you make the girl happier?' I said, 'That's not the way things are in this country. We want to teach young girls that they must be careful.' "
The merging of life and art is made especially clear when the Isiga dancers take part in the exorcising scene. These exceptional performers, from the Shaba region of Zaire, consider dance to be a sacred activity, a means of contacting the spirit world. Before enacting these rites, they must abstain from eating, from sexual activity, and from conversing with the non-initiated.
"It's very difficult to direct the Isigas' dancing," says Mikanza. "They take time, they don't care about production. They're given cues and some idea of the plot, but that's all. I think that people understand that they are not professional dancers but traditional ones."
Mikanza has no interest in commercial appeal. He cites other touring African troupes who dance "without any reason, who will show you women without any dress," and then perform clothed for their own people. When asked if the leotards and halter tops that the Zaire company members wear on stage here are also worn back home, he nods solemnly and says, "I haven't changed anything . . . if people outside our country like our production, we'll be proud. If they don't like it, I say that we came to show our way of life, and we don't want people to agree with it necessarily. It's another way of thinking. This is the way we do things in Zaire. We are not cultural imperialists."
The National Dance Theatre of Zaire receives total government support; the company is paid at home and while on tour. "We are trying to convince the people both at home and abroad that what we are doing is as important as producing copper," says Mikanza.