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The Popular and the Populist

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Woloba

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago

at the Katherine Dunham Theatre of Kennedy-King College, December 8, 10, and 11

The Nutcracker

at Arie Crown Theatre, through December 31

Kids' natural liking for anything loud, busy, and colorful might explain why my eight-year-old daughter preferred Woloba to The Nutcracker, which we saw on the same weekend. But I don't think so. Though Woloba was 50 percent longer--three hours instead of two--it held her attention much better: Jocelyn didn't once put her coat over her head the way she did during the second half of The Nutcracker (and that was her favorite half). Woloba was simply a better show than that old dried-up Christmas cookie, for adults and kids: more fun, more humane, more uplifting. But unfortunately Muntu Dance Theatre's Woloba is over, with a run only a fraction as long as the late Ruth Page's granddaddy Nutcracker.

Both are evening-length narrative ballets closely tied to their cultural origins; both are family shows. But there the resemblance ends. Woloba ("The Big Forest"), a dance-opera written, directed, and choreographed by Abdoulaye Camara with assistance from Muntu artistic director Amaniyea Payne, is based on a Senegalese folktale and performed in Mandingo. But the broad acting and a synopsis in the program make it easy to understand. A baby girl, Khadi, is stolen from her parents by a forest demon. Many people search for her, and after several years a courageous hunter finds her, battles the demons, and returns her to her parents. By this time she's grown into a beautiful woman, and falls in love with Ngnonsomana; but her parents marry her to a rich man, Bakari. He turns out to be unworthy, their marriage is annulled, and she's free to wed Ngnonsomana; the final hour of the show is devoted to celebrating their wedding.

The story of The Nutcracker is better known; the setting, at least at first, is a Christmas party in the early 19th century. A young girl, Clara, receives a nutcracker from the mysterious Drosselmeyer, which her brother breaks. She falls asleep with the toy in her arms and wakes to find the Nutcracker and some toy soldiers alive and battling giant mice. After helping defeat them, she and the Nutcracker--really Drosselmeyer's nephew--are transported first through a magical snowy land, then in the second act to the Kingdom of Sweets, where they are treated to a series of divertissements.

The Chicago Tribune Charities production, now in its 28th year, emphasizes the bourgeois comfort of the opening scenes: as the overture is played, we see the skies darkening over a great town not unlike our own metropolis on a picturesque day. In familiar scenes of Christmas cheer, parents gossip and children play, all wearing the kind of 19th-century costumes vaguely imitated in our own holiday garb, velvet and lace and satin. But these scenes exist only to be transcended, to show that behind the bourgeois veil of parties, presents, and family squabbles lies a more sumptuous place, a glittering court where Clara and her consort are a little king and queen beguiled by dancers brought from all over the world. Finally they transcend even this heavenly spot, going off to God knows where in a fancy flying sleigh.

Of course ballet originated in French court dances of the 16th century, performed by and for the aristocracy; and in 1892, when The Nutcracker was first danced in Saint Petersburg for the tsar, the audience was overwhelmingly aristocratic. In both substance and form it favors the hierarchies of the court: the story transforms the main characters from bourgeois nobodies to aristocrats, and the final act is structured like a court scene. The values it upholds are selfishness, indolence, luxury, and isolation, not surprising given the original audience. What is surprising is The Nutcracker's immense popularity in the last 40 or 50 years. Or maybe it's not surprising in a culture that pushes consumption so hard. Moreover, patrons of this Nutcracker can indulge themselves and feel good about contributing to charity at the same time.

Woloba opens with Khadi's father and mother working: he chops wood, she brings him his lunch and then sows seeds. When the rest of their village enters, everyone works. While they work they sing, and later that music develops spontaneously into dance. Where in The Nutcracker the musicians are traditionally hidden in the orchestra pit--the most we see is the conductor's bobbing head when he takes his bow--throughout Woloba they are not only visible but part of the action: members of Khadi's village are the singers and musicians. Music comes very pointedly from human beings. When Khadi's mother loses her baby to the forest spirit, she expresses her sorrow in song, and her friends sing to commiserate with and comfort her. Nothing happens outside the context of the community: when Khadi is stolen, it's everyone's tragedy, and everyone looks for her.

My first impression was that Woloba's story was disjointed, and certainly there are abrupt shifts in tone and focus. But in retrospect the narrative seemed to explore what it means to be a good parent. The first story, about Khadi's loss and recovery, emphasizes the instinctual side of parenting: not only to keep children safe from evil but simply to keep them, because their loss is so devastating. The second story, when Khadi is given in marriage to a rich man, looks at later and more difficult stages of parenting. By some lights, choosing a wealthy man for one's daughter--and picking up some nice durable goods as part of the bargain--is a good thing all the way around. But Khadi's father realizes the error he's made: his daughter's wishes and love matter more than material things.

The scene in which Khadi's husband, Bakari, loses her is unexpectedly comic. The morning after their marriage, while she bustles around getting water and cleaning up, he emerges from the hut farting and scratching himself and boorishly pinching her bottom. She "accidentally" hits him on the head with the water bowl and peevishly sweeps around his feet. When Bakari goes off to hunt and Ngnonsomana shows up, he treats Khadi tenderly, hugging and caressing her. The battle between Ngnonsomana and Bakari when he comes back unexpectedly is a cartoon in movement: Bakari makes elaborate preparations for the fight, pulling up his skirt and tying it tight under his arms, feeling his own biceps complacently. Of course Ngnonsomana defeats him. When Bakari runs off with the presents he's given Khadi's parents, his true nature is revealed, and Khadi's father annuls the marriage.

This scene not only made my daughter laugh, which nothing in The Nutcracker did, it also set the stage for the final celebratory act. Sometimes performances like DanceAfrica and other Muntu shows have made me feel how artificial a concert setting is for African dance, as one climactic work follows another episodically. But Woloba creates a cultural and dramatic context for the truly climactic final hour of dancing and music. All the vivid life that went into the acting--especially by Babu Atiba as Khadi's father and choreographer Camara as Bakari--now flows out in dancing and playing so intense it makes the blood beat harder. Mori Keba on the stringed kora and Eli Hoe Nai on shekere were magnificent, as were all the drummers. Another viewer criticized the dancing as not entirely Senegalese, but the energy and joy were impeccable.

Both The Nutcracker and Woloba end with a celebratory suite of dances. The viewer's representatives in The Nutcracker, the tsar's representatives, are Clara and her prince, who don't dance but watch. Ballet is not only aristocratic in its origins, it's an exclusionary form by nature: almost no one has the body, the training, and the skill to dance on pointe, to extend the limbs and hold them at impossible angles. On some level ballet is about achieving certain preordained and otherworldly ideals. To do African dance well also requires great skill and a lifetime of training. But it's not exclusionary in the way ballet is: it doesn't require a certain type of body, it doesn't require youth. It doesn't require the dancer to fill preconceived forms, but allows her to give her own character to steps of her choice. Unlike ballet, in which many dancers achieve the forms but lose the spirit of dancing, it cuts to the chase, cuts right to energy and personality. Woloba celebrates people, celebrates community, in every way, from its overt messages to the high level of participation by all the performers to the way it includes the viewer. As my daughter said when we left Kennedy-King, it wasn't just for black people, it was for everybody.

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