Histrionics, humor, drama, pulsating rhythmic excitement and seemingly boundless physical and psychic energy -- such were the qualities that erupted from the stage in wave after wave last night at the Marvin Center Theater. The occasion was the downtown debut of the KanKouran West African Dance Company in a 2 1/2-hour program under the rubric, "A Visit to Africa."
The event drew a full house, and the kind of totally unbuttoned response from the audience that African dancing, alone among terpsichorean genres, seems able to generate hereabouts.
The 2-year-old KanKouran troupe numbers about 12 male and female dancers, and six male drummers; last night's program also included several guest musicians and dancers. Two Senegalese artists, long resident in this country, are the founders and leaders of the group: director-choreographer Assane Konte and drummer Abdou Kounta, assistant director in charge of music.
If some aspects of the program seemed familiar -- at least to Washington devotees of African dance -- there were numerous reasons. Konte has served as guest choreographer and Kounta as lead drummer for seven years for Melvin Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, Washington's oldest and most influential African dance troupe. A number of former African Heritage dancers now perform with KanKouran. "Kake Lambe," the spectacular dance of exorcism that was last night's finale, was choreographed originally, in somewhat different form, for the African Heritage ensemble in 1980. Both the harvest dance "Akonkon," which opened the main part of last night's program, and guest musician Djimo Kouyate, appeared under Deal's auspices as recently as last November in the "Black Dance '84" festival.
Like African Heritage, KanKouran is dedicated to preserving and fostering the African cultural legacy for an American public. Based on last night's program, though, one would say there are conspicuous differences in emphasis. KanKouran seems bent on adapting African material to western notions of a "show" -- the accent is on theatricality, entertainment, virtuosity, comedy and variety. Not that African Heritage lacks any of these qualities; the troupe's costumes, masks and props, for example, have often been stunning in design and fabric. But with African Heritage, one always felt that a performance was a sacrament first and a show second -- the inward spirit directed the outer form. There's plenty of spirit in KanKouran as well, but razzle dazzle is what appears to capture the lion's share of the limelight.
The evening had its weaknesses. The all-purpose African village set had a makeshift look; some of the musical interludes (solos for flute and African xylophone, for instance) were on the shaggy side; and even the dancing and drumming weren't uniformly on a high level. But when they were up, they were really up, and this was most of the time in the extended dance dramas. In addition to the ones cited, there were "Ballanta," in which villagers hail the hunters' prowess after a droll contest with a gorilla; "Mandiani," a coming-of-age ritual marked by eye-popping bravura, including breakdance spins; "Yaradal," in which a woman overcomes difficulties in attaining motherhood; and a "Market Scene," performed by adult students of KanKouran's classes at the YWCA.