Tokounou all-abilities dance/music ensemble

Hopkins High School Auditorium: seen May 3, 2008 How’s this for a recipe for exuberance? Imagine a concert where there […]

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Hopkins High School Auditorium: seen May 3, 2008

How’s this for a recipe for exuberance?

Imagine a concert where there are no computerized light-works and a dance production where the dancers are not synchronized. Then toss in some amazing West African musicians to spice up the salad. Sprinkle with the charisma of Sidiki Conde, a brilliant drummer and vocalist who happens to be disabled. That was quite a meal.

At first the bare stage (save for a row of African drums and xylophones) didn’t seem all that appetizing, but soon the musicians, decked out in their eye-dazzling native garb, took command with their instruments, which included a 21-string traditional West African harp. The ensemble of five men played a traditional drum call, which made it abundantly clear that drums could be used to create a melody of sorts beyond its obvious function of rhythm.

From this point on, the first half of the show was turned over to students, both disabled and not, who had only five hours of training over a two-week period to learn more about West African music and experience some choreography. The three groups of students came from Transition Plus (Hopkins), Marion W. Savage Elementary School (Savage), and Folwell Middle School (Minneapolis). Each group had studied their dance movements. Given the fact that they had only five hours to learn, one couldn’t expect them to be professional but their genuine attempts to follow the choreography lent a heartwarming exuberance to the show, particularly near the end of the first half. The Folwell students were clearly in love with the music surging around them, and it was a thrill to watch them match their movements to the intensity and rhythms emanating from behind them. At times, as with most first-time efforts, the students’ performance felt truly anarchic, bringing to mind the best Marx Brothers, who were always about controlled anarchy in their films; here, onstage, their anarchy equaled joy. The musicians simply kept the show moving forward with their propulsions.

Behind all this was Sidiki Conde. Having lost the mobility of his legs due to polio at the age of fourteen in Guinea, West Africa, Sidiki had to learn how to get around on his hands. He became so adept that he traveled to Guinea’s capital city and recruited an orchestra of artists with disabilities from the city’s streets. From there he’s become an international phenomenon, even more so when he’s onstage. When he danced on his hands and moved around, he truly challenged the notion of dance being confined to the ability of feet moving. Of course, many outside the disability community are disabled in their way of viewing dancers as limited to their feet’s ability to move to music. But Conde easily demonstrated that there were other ways of dancing as powerful, if not more, as traditional able-bodied dancing. He seemed like a whirling dervish, joyous and pleading at the same time, particularly when he sang “Dounougna,” which was about how “disabled people are truly fine,” and “N’na,” a tribute to his mother who carried him twice—first as a baby and then when he couldn’t walk. Gretchen Toay ably interpreted the spoken English portions of the show into ASL.

Finally, the fact that the musicians onstage were constantly watching each other while playing made their rapport warm and inviting. It was not about how cool they looked but how much fun they were having together. That is what made this particular event a joyous family meal, a true dance of life.

Editor’s note: Access Press is pleased to welcome author and playwright Raymond Luczak as our new theater reviewer. Mr. Luczak will be reviewing an ASL-interpreted plays the heading “From the front row.”

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