Faustin Linyekula's Festival of Lies Dec 1, 2007
by Tania Kupczak
When the Belgians created the prison they called the Congo, they gave it sort of half a national anthem, using the same melody as the Belgian anthem, but with new words, to the effect that Africans give thanks to King Leopold for bringing civilization. Then Mobutu gave it an anthem and Kabila and others too, one after another the soundtrack for the modern tragedy of Central Africa, which we hear in "Festival of Lies" as part of the score for a reenactment of this tragedy in dance, an art form not often given to such subjects. But this tragedy is not one where the heros can speak; the heroes aren't the leaders but the people who somehow survive with some sanity in their lives in a world gone mad. One way Faustin Linykula conveys this is to encapsulate the performance in a party for the audience -- the subject is terrible but it's not supposed to be more torture for people watching. Then we watch a dance of madness and destruction, much of it to the tune of speeches by the tyrant Mobutu. Somehow, he manages to make the material engaging and even appealing, while not flinching from the truth of the disaster being portrayed. This is a superb dance piece by artists who created a vocabulary of movement and stagecraft equal to the challenge of bringing the tragedy of central Africa to life for a few hours on a bare Seattle stage.
The dancers used bright white florescent lights on long extension cords as the main prop, carrying them around and defining spaces with them. The harsh neon light itself became a very powerful image for the tyranny of colonists and later dictators like Mobutu over the Congolese, displayed in changing patterns evoking prisons, borders and violence. In this mysterious environment dancers boiled and seethed, sometimes evoking a candle's flame sputtering in wind, sometimes a desperate, crawling struggle for survival, sometimes the wanderings of lost souls Mobutu's speeches and recordings of music from past eras are interspersed with contemporary poetry and songs by the dancers. One dance started with one man confined within a ring of florescent lights writhing wildly in movements that had their roots in traditional African dance but from an Africa in political confligration. The wild movements eventually caused him to collapse over the lights, only to be propped back up by the other dancers again and again to resume his hot twisting movement. He crashed to the groand again dangerously onto the electrical circle of lights that trapped him in their harsh white glow. He finally collapsed inert and the other dancers made a sort of bonfire over him with a pile of the long glowing neon appliances in a pile. Meanwhile we heard speeches by Mobutu (translations projected on the wall), interspersed with a few other choice political figures. Dancers fought the lights and cradled the lights. Dancers fought each other and comforted each other. Some masterful poetry is read describing what it's like to try to hold onto any semblence of reason in a world where politics has sunk to unfathonable depths of corruption and violence.
Central Africa has been ravaged by Leopold the tyrant and vicious Belgian overlords whose power and greed were inherited by Mobutu and his henchment. It has more recently been devastated by a war reportedly with millions of violent deaths in the past several years. All of this over what? Creating a nation? Development? Ideology? It is impossible to fully comprehend. One of the many reasons why this piece is called Festival of Lies is that thw whole idea of Zaire or a Republic of the Congo democratic or otherwise, is false. It's a border created for the purposes of exploitation of Central African resources and control of the people by violence and deception. The government wields power but to no purpose other than aggrandizing the rulers. If you're going to see this piece, you might want to read a little of the history on Wikipedia or somewhere in preparation. (I myself once took a course touching on the history that's in the play.) You should know that before the Belgians there were lands of various people but no nation of Congo, and that the Belgians subverted traditional African cultures by stealing lands from one people and moving others in, transforming traditional boundaries into what we call tribal hatred in a land that was once diverse and much more peaceable. (No, it wasn't a garden of Eden before this; certainly there were cultural and political rivalries and poverty and other ills; yet there was nothing like the madness and carnage that the Belgians and the West have inspired. Millions have died this decade while the world stood by.) But the time long past before the Belgian tyranny isn't even a memory in Festival of Lies except perhaps to inform the dance with some of the magnificent African artistic tradtiions. Politically, there's no going back. The dance takes us from "independence" to today, a period of unremitting tragedy for the people of Central Africa. The US has done our part, but that's not at all a focus of this work. It's what it was like to live through that history and what it's like today in Zaire/Congo or whatever you want to call the violated land.
Faustin Linyekula is a masterful dancer/choregrapher from Kinshasa with a following around the world. (The group leaves for a tour in Europe after the On the Boards gig.) Yet, sadly, this performance hasn't gotten anywhere near the attention in the press that it deserves. It's not everyday that you can see history danced, or real tragedy enacted before your eyes. It's not everyday you can see dance remade by performers as skilled, intelligent and beautiful as Les Studios Kabako. It's not everyday you can see artists who can make something so intelligent, dignified and compelling out of a subject so difficult and sad. In the arts, as in politics, the good guys don't always win. But Faustin and his troupe are used to being on the losing side and we should all thank them for turning their art to this high purpose when they could easly make works less dangerous and more popular. The Lega people from part of Zaire sometimes say a person like Mobutu has a heart of feathers. Faustin Linyekula and his troupe speak to whoever has a human heart. This is a stunning performance and one that should not be missed if you can possibly get there. Yes, so here's to the losers and to the artists who will not let the world forget them.
- Ken Shear