Requiem for a Dream

The Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula delves into his country’s conflicted cultural memories in “In Search of Dinozord.”

By Diana Hubbell

“Turn off the lights!” an anguished voice cries.

Until a moment earlier, the Congolese dancer/choreographer Faustin Linyekula had crouched at the downstage-left corner of the stage, watching his own work in full view of the audience. A makeshift wooden rectangle framed his body like a canvas. His face was painted a bloodless white, recalling a mime or a ghost. At times, his body vibrated in frantic, spastic movements; other times he stood and raised a projector to cast texts and photographs onto the backdrop.

“Turn it off!” he shouts again, running to the center of the stage as the five other performers freeze.

This is hardly the only moment over the roughly hour-and-a-half performance that Linyekula shatters the fourth wall. Several times he addresses the audience in his native French or speaks in eloquent, halting English. In Search of Dinozord, which made its U.S. debut as part of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)’s Crossing the Line Festival at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, is both a standalone work and his reflection on a 2006 performance. As such, it’s a play within a play, a classic tale of the prodigal son returning home from afar to confront the past and mourn the dead. It also marks Linyekula’s personal efforts to crystallize a memory of homeland. Zaire, as it was known when Linyekula was born, no longer exists, and its past is an endless succession of Orwellian revisions dictated by the powerful. Just as the Belgian colonists once obliterated much of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo’s oral history and tradition, successive revolutionaries and regimes have been quick to pave over those who came before.

Faustin Linyekula’s “In Search of Dinozord.” photo: (c) Agathe Poupeney, courtesy of French Institute/Alliance Francaise

Linyekula informs us that he dreamed of gathering his old friends to return to his home city of Kisangani. He tells us about his comrades, including Dinozord, the dancer, and Kabako, a brilliant writer who died of plague. Throughout the performance, Linyekula reiterates with a mixture of grief, bitterness, and youthful romanticism that Kabako would have changed the face of contemporary African literature, had he only lived a little longer. Kabako, he relates, was buried on a stranger’s land, so as a form of funerary rites, the dancers carry the burden of his legacy in the form of an immense red chest filled with forgotten pages and crumpled dreams. Throughout the performance, Kabako’s words rise from the grave, uttered by the performers, or, on those pages, scattered carelessly across the stage. Each time the troupe empties the paper contents onto the stage floor, they dutifully sweep them up and return them to the chest.

Though Linyekula’s story clearly has its roots in real memories, many of the people contained within are fabrications with an allegorical edge. The line between fiction and reality is intentionally murky, a revisionist’s tale about rethinking history. Much like memory itself, the piece shifts in and out of a linear chronological structure, as the performers transition from exaggerated representations of warlike scenes, succumb to unexplained spasms that wrack through their bodies, or abandon story altogether to move to their own rhythms. To tell this multifaceted narrative, Linyekula draws on several musical idioms, styles of dance, and technological devices. All of the latter appear in plain sight — a dinky handheld projector, an impromptu white screen, a laptop; a recording of the clacking keys of a typewriter often punctuate the score. Whereas other choreographers might hide the mechanics of their work, Linyekula pulls back the curtain to show us his own detached perspective.

Not long after an actor crumples to the ground in an abstract representation of Kabako’s death, and the remaining members of the troupe scatter his writings once again around the stage, the jingle of a Skype call interrupts the performance. At first it seems like a glitch, like maybe a spectator’s cellphone is going off. But it turns out to be one more of Linyekula’s deliberate disruptions. The call is from Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, a Congolese political dissident who now resides in Sweden. Linyekula explains that visa restrictions prevent his dear friend from being here in the flesh this evening, which is why his spectral visage flickers across a screen from his place of exile. The intrusion of the real world rips the viewers out of the fictional narrative, focusing our attention halfway around the planet for a few minutes. It’s a brief glimpse into Linyekula’s life, where friends and loved ones inhabit distant spaces and are accessible only through flawed technology, if at all.

Central to this performance are several musical styles. The score includes recorded passages of work for organ by Arvo Pärt and fragmented choral lines from Mozart’s Requiem, as well as, on-stage, the vocals of countertenor Serge Kakudji. Though Linyekula is a striking presence throughout the performance, he seldom joins the rest of the dancers, even as the troupe enacts a war, a death, or smears their bodies in white paint, only to wipe it off and reapply. When he finally does break into movement, he performs a technically precise solo of angular gestures, tracing a circle on the stage. Soon after, dancer Jean Kumbonyeki Deba bursts into an explosive solo, in which he leaps, lunges, and shudders as if possessed by the sound. Dancing to the unexpected blasts of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” he conveys pathos and power. There’s a catharsis to this near euphoric moment, a joyful outpouring fueled by the sheer prowess and wonder of the dance, even in the midst of all the tragedy. It is a fitting release, one that honors exiled dreamers and raises the ghosts Linyekula tried to bury more than a decade ago.