Review: Dance company balances message

Les Ballets Africains, the extraordinary national dance company of the Republic of Guinea, took Liberty Hall by rhythmic storm Sunday evening.

Traditional West African drums echoed and cracked while dancers in vibrant costumes whirled and clapped. No matter that the group's tour bus broke down on the way to Lawrence, resulting in a hurried setup for the 5 p.m. show. Road weariness doesn't apply when you have this much musical get-up-and-go.

The 26-member ensemble, appearing in Lawrence to headline Kansas University's second annual World Music and Cultural Diversity Concert, delivered a high-impact show that would leave any aerobics instructor's mouth agape. Dancers flew about the stage in perpetual motion, flailing beautifully in time with the complex beats provided by a group of impossibly limber percussionists. Male dancers doubled as high-flying gymnasts, while female company members launched into subdivided moves with loose-limbed precision.

Despite all the visual and auditory histrionics, Les Ballets Africains' show was about substance, not flash. The music and dancing told stories from a diverse republic bordered by six West African countries and divided into four distinct regions itself. The result was a reflection of cultures colliding and struggling to grow.

The performance focused primarily on the culture of West Africa by exploring the plight of women, both past and present. For centuries, Guinean women have endured female circumcision, which prevented them from experiencing sexual pleasure. Midway through the concert's opening act, the female dancers came together and buried a knife to symbolize their rejection of traditional female mutilation.

The performance also highlighted the modern divide between old culture and popular street styles. One of the show's most revealing moments, a hilarious dance-off, came when old and new schools of West African culture found common ground and came together as one. The diva-friendly riot between inner-city girls steeped in hip-hop and traditional female dancers accustomed to tribal beats provided plenty of laughs but ultimately sent an important message: Old and new ways have the ability to coexist, and both can benefit from observing the best the other has to offer.

Les Ballets Africains understands this important balance well, as demonstrated by the group's beautiful music, buoyant dance and genuine smiles. Future KU celebrations of cultural diversity will be hard-pressed to find a better messenger.

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