He's one of the bright lights of this year's Live Arts Festival - where his
Festival of Lies
opens tonight - and he's a man with a mission, a choreographer with a cause.
First encountered last spring at a reception for Philadelphia's dance community, Faustin Linyekula - thin as a rail, with wide eyes and a generous mouth in a face haloed by a black crown of baby dreads - seemed a wispy sprite, a featherweight, in every sense. Yet there was something solid, grounded, self-possessed about him. Something quiet at the center. Indeed, this man of elfin frame turned out to be a wise old soul - a heavyweight, in fact. In an interview the next day, the lie was put to first impressions.
"I speak in my own name," he said, "not in the name of 'all Congolese' or 'all Africans.'. . . I pose the question: 'What is my space in the middle of all this?' "
Looks are deceiving, and, for many, our concept of Africa is a lie. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one-fourth the size of the United States, with a population of anywhere from 49 million to 60 million, according to various encyclopedic sources. But with countless millions murdered during decades of upheaval and regime change, who can be sure? Since independence from Belgium in 1960, the country has been ravaged by political corruption, civil strife, inter-ethnic warring, and poverty, despite its rich mineral resources and hydroelectric power potential.
That history is the backdrop that shaped the contours of Linyekula's life and art. He was born on Feb. 27, 1974, in the city of Kisangani, during the tumultuous dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu. Because of Mobutu's "cultural awareness" program - an attempt to strip the nation, renamed Zaire, of any vestige of Europeanness - Linyekula's Christian name couldn't appear on any official documents until the late 1990s. (Like half the population, his family was Catholic.)
By 1991, when he wished to attend college, the regime had closed the university, calling it a radical hotbed. So in 1993 he traveled to Kenya, where he hoped to study; there, he was introduced to dance at a workshop. He made his first choreography in 1997.
In 2001 - after eight years away, with Mobutu ousted and a new government in place - Linyekula returned to the Congo and established Les Studios Kabako (named for a dear friend who had died in Uganda and is buried among strangers). He now lives and works in his birthplace, Kisangani.
In a recent "Wizard of Id" cartoon strip, the town crier announces, "Six o'clock and time for lies, distortions, and half truths." A citizen pokes his head out the window and asks, "What happened to the news?" The crier replies, "This is the news!"
This is the world of Linyekula's Festival of Lies - a multimedia meditation and journey about history, memory, and nationality. His productions are a fusion of influences balanced on his creative vision. He makes theater pieces, his dancers are actors, his stage a dramatic set.
"I work with choreographic movement, energy, rhythm, the body and its physical presence - the challenge to remain standing, vertical, in spite of a crushing environment."
He hopes to make work that "goes beyond any partisan political approach, to reach some degree of poetry, which is the space where you transcend certain political views and where you even acknowledge your own contradictions."
Linyekula, seeking the equivalent of a traditional Kinshasa storytelling night for this day and age, came up with two versions of Festival: a two-hour-plus presentation (tonight and tomorrow at the Painted Bride), and an all-night interactive event (Saturday into Sunday). The extended presentation was his riff on the pop-culture dance and music marathons that arose in the 1990s around ndombolo, a trendy Congolese dance form that became so popular that the name for the dance was given to the musical accompaniment, and later to the entire event, as well.
Ndombolo evenings "never begin before midnight, but then you have to keep people until morning [because all public transportation ceases at night], and it becomes a situation where, besides the performance, you need to organize the life around the performance - food, drinks."
About the all-nighter, he asserts that it's as much about the time spent together as it is about the "concert," and that the performance, as such, merges into and out of the evening itself. He then adds, not only in jest, "I believe in time - it's the only luxury I can afford."
Festival of Lies is one man's response to what Linyekula simply terms "this mess," meaning the state of affairs of his homeland. His stage is full of urban detritus: political handbills and garbage-dump body parts of broken dolls, and the continuous "garbage" of recorded speeches, like radios blasting political messages in the streets during election time.
This choreographer is fascinated by artificial light. Lamps, lanterns, and strings of lightbulbs have all figured in his works. This time, oblong neon lamps are manipulated by the dancers and reshape the stage space in the process. Occasionally these lights become performers in their own right: bodies, presences beyond the level of "prop," morphed into movement partnership with a particular dancer. The work itself and the moving of props don't "represent" anything but what they are. The political speeches we hear are also what they are. Two parallel tracks - recorded speeches and the life of the people present onstage - live side by side, with little overlap. As in "real" life, we share the same space with the dictator, the king, the mayor, but our lives and movements don't really intersect.
At each venue Linyekula's small ensemble is augmented by local musicians and caterers who supply the music and food for this unusual party. (In fact, they usually find a community of Congolese expatriates wherever they go.) To integrate locals into the event, two days of contact before the performance are required, not so much as a rehearsal but more as a time for conversation and to garner collective images and impressions. How does it all come together? As Linyekula explains, "You trust in the moment of encounter."
Choreography? Improvisation? Theater? Performance art? Installation? Dance? Linyekula's work doesn't quite fit the box. He is also not an "African dancer." Staking his claim elsewhere, he said, "When you take those two words together, for most people the stress is more on the word 'African' than on the word 'dancer,' because of the stereotypes and all that. The day that both words will be put on the same level, maybe then I can talk of myself as an African dancer."
Salman Rushdie has said that immigration is the great story of the century. Faustin Linyekula has said, "Perhaps my only true country is my body."