The king is dead! Long live the new king! But it isn't that easy. First he must prove himself. It is this trial, the testing of the individual by his fellows and his real enemies, that is at the heart of the young king's story as well as of the other sagas that the National Ballet Djoliba danced, mimed and sang at its Washington premiere Sunday night at the Kilimanjaro club.
The Djoliba troupe, 40 strong, is the official dance company of Guinea and it hasn't been here since 1973. Why? Performances of such ferocity and virtuosity have not been duplicated by "folk" ensembles we see much more often. The speed and the force of this African dancing are fantastic. It is an art lived to the hilt, and yet its focus is the cruelty of existence and the extreme demands of craftsmanship.
Rarely have acts of combat and torture been depicted so dangerously on the stage. The two-hour program is almost entirely one of climax. Even as the young king's mother seeks her son, an elegiac passage, a chorus -- like none ever seen in a Greek tragedy -- is in a state of frenzy on the raised stage behind her. Of course, the story ends heroically in agony and death.
There are lyrical strands in these epics. A dance of the women in a tale of lovers' quarrels and woes uses the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hips so separately that the resulting image is one of incredible delicacy. But such passages are short-lived. Time and again the scene explodes and the performers sprint, stamp, spin and somersault as if any less expenditure of energy would cost them their lives.
Even the musicians move. The drummers, pipers, the players of strings and of a sort of xylophone don't simply sit down to their tasks. Their gestures are large as they coax or constrain their instruments, and often they're on the march. Costuming is splendid in both color and form, and yet it displays rather than hides the dancing body.
There is plenty of opportunity to see the Djoliba at Kilimanjaro. Morning performances and matinees as well as evening presentations have been scheduled through Friday. The only thing the producers could do to aid the viewer would be to provide a printed program to identify some of the leading performers. Given the company's past visiting record, it may not return for another 12 years, and by then you may be too frail for such an experience.