Mbongui Square Festival

Sima Belmar
Jan 14 · 6 min read

Am I the only dance-lover/viewer/goer that dreads the mixed bill? On the one hand, I like variety and I like short pieces, and mixed bills usually provide both. On the other hand, I know that at least one piece, if not several, if not most, if not all, will be terrible. Not inherently terrible. Just terrible to me for one reason or another. At least I thought I knew that.

Thinking I knew that I would suffer parts of the 6th edition of Mbongui Square Festival, the mixed bill presented by Kiandanda Dance Theater at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center on Sunday, December 22, I had my tin of Rescue Remedy pastilles on hand. I pop one whenever I want to jump out of my skin and rush out the door, leaving behind a Stepford Wife Sima who knows how to be respectful during live performance.

(I bet you know where this is going.)

I could have left those delightful homeopathic sucking candies at home. Every single piece of spoken word and dance that graced Studio 1 — lovingly transformed into an intimate theater space, the ghosts of sweaty dancers from the day’s classes in comforting attendance — thrilled me to the bone.

I arrived early to find Byb Chanel Bibene, artistic director of Kiandanda Dance Theater and producer of Mbongui Square Festival, in the lobby. A big backdrop with Kiandanda Dance logos splashed across it hung in front of front desk. Byb invited me onto “the red carpet” and I felt like a movie star as we posed for photos. After waving away the paparazzi, Byb directed me to Studio 4, which had become a marketplace with vendors selling African arts and crafts as well as mango ginger juice in mason jars.

Due to a mistake on some of the flyers, the audience was sparser than the night before (Byb said they had had to turn people away). The show started about 20 minutes late to wait for folks scooting over from Temescal Arts Center where opening night had taken place. I was happy to wait; it gave me time to peruse the program, chat with a friend, observe the crowd.

Finally, after apologies for the late start from Byb, Marvin K. White, Minister of Celebration at Glide Memorial Church, stepped up to the mic. In comfy attire including black track pants, White gave the “theopoetic sermon” A Love Supreme. I jotted down as many lines from White’s “love theory” as a I could as he preached, dropping index cards to the ground as he went along: “Love is a movement.” “Love moves us.” “Love is like milk, it has to be used or it goes bad.” “The answer to love’s question is always ‘all of the above.’” “All people in love are our people.” “Love is always paying attention.” “Love points to what we have, not what we lack.” “Love is curvilinear.” “Love bends over backwards to reach you.” Something extraordinary about love being a house and us not being latchkey kids.

I had never known what it meant to be in love with someone before listening to White. My understanding of love had a unidirectional and unrequited-even when-requited quality, a little obsessive and a lot possessive. White’s “in love” is about sharing the space of love with someone — romantically, platonically, as strangers, as kin. To be “in love” is to be inside this enormous bear hug from the universe. When White said, “Everyone is in love with you,” I was struck — everyone is in love with me! And we don’t have to be polyamorous (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or narcissistic for that to be true. When White closed his sermon, I felt blessed.

It was into this “love place” that Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble dancer Linda Steele II entered to perform ReD ZONE, a solo derived from stories of women who’ve been sexually assaulted. These stories were distilled into fragments that ended with the line, “That was the last time I saw her.” It took me a second to register that these women were talking about themselves in the third person. This dissociative response to trauma framed Steele’s fierce dancing — her bodily control moving in stark contrast to the breathless incoherence of violating experience.

We’re only two pieces in and I’m feeling GREAT.

Next up: Bharatanatyam dancer Prehelika Rajagopalan. If you don’t know anything about Bharatanatyam, it’s a classical Indian dance form that tells stories through movement and music. Sounds like classical ballet, doesn’t it? But how often do you watch a ballerina’s face for an entire performance? I know it’s part of the training and central to the form, but Rajagopalan’s facial dexterity still astonished me. I saw eyes deny and insist, eyebrows doubt and seduce, nostrils celebrate and doom. The dance was divided into three parts — an invocation to Lord Shiva, a dance to verses composed by Patanjali (the one people are taught to invoke in Iyengar yoga classes), and a dance to a popular song. Since I’m not well-versed in Bharatanatyam, I can only offer my sincere praise for a dancer who allowed the full gamut of human (e)motion to pass through her body. She also skillfully batted to the side her detached ankle bells without missing a beat.

Three for three.

When you know dancers from other companies and then they embark on their own choreographic journeys, it’s always interesting to observe how they work with and against influence. I know Patricia West and Damara Ganley from their work with Joe Goode, so I expected an amalgam of text, movement, and song. This they delivered as DAP, a trio made up of West, Ganley, and Aja Randall. But Where I have landed had a very different texture from a Goode work (not that all Goode works are texturally the same), grittier, with a pulsing fierceness. Pelvic thrusts, self-touch, club dance, movement echoes from the African diaspora combined to kinesthetically access “embodied experiences of racism in everyday contexts.” The work carved a space for defining less, knowing less, and feeling more. (I had these words scrawled across my program. Turns out, they had issued directly from West’s mouth: “I want to make space for more feeling and less knowing, less defining.” Note to writers: if ever in doubt that the words scribbled on your program in the dark are yours, contact the artist. Thanks for sending me the script, Patricia!)

After intermission, Lucia August took to the stage to perform Hermit, a work that “explores the dichotomy of a lonely societal outcast vs. a candidate for a vital spiritual experience.” August played with weight — bearing down on her, pushing against it, lunging underneath it — while touching space with her hands, fingers, and, I know it sounds impossible, guts. Wrestling a red satin nightgown, she moved in an out of symmetry, her face first contorted in suffering then softened with joy. For me, Hermit was a performance of how emotions change, their fleeting and embodied nature, not unlike Rajagopalan’s Bharatnatyam dance.

After August’s powerful work, another red-clad performer entered the space. Tammy Johnson, an Egyptian style bellydancer, performed Cirque Arabesque: The Realm of Magical Beings. Fashioning herself as Ringmaster J, in the style of P.T. Barnum, Johnson began with a seductive speech that conjured past lives. Johnson drew me into her magical world with her voice and then kept me riveted as she started to dance. I have not seen nearly enough bellydancing in my life, so I don’t know if this is true about all bellydancing, but I can say that Johnson’s bellydancing seemed to emerge from the most internal place, a bubbling up of movement, more cellular than muscular. Watching her, I had the double experience of watching movement and pleasure in movement at the same time, and it dawned on me that those two things are not the same yet I’m not sure how to separate them.

Spoken word artist, Darius Simpson, closed the show with a few poems. I captured a line here and there — “I can transition into a lie,” “flesh whistling its way to the ground,” “a dancer must always consider the consequences of his movements,” “all the black boys who had to learn the choreography of a traffic stop” — but I was mostly caught up in the rhythm of his oration. Simpson was the perfect bookend for a show that started with White: both men spoke of love but in wildly different ways, both provided a container for the spiritual, ritual, painful, jubilant dances to breathe inside of.

Mbongui is the Congolese cultural practice of building community together. Bibene’s curation of the festival program I experienced felt inspired by that practice. Held together by the theme “celebrating identities,” the mixed bill had a satisfying coherence.

Like a wedding buffet, not everything will be to one’s taste on a mixed bill. But, to me, everything Bibene presented was nourishing and delicious.

On the “red carpet” with Byb Chanel Bibene, Artistic Director of Kiandanda Dance Theater and presenter/curator of Mbongui Square Festival


A collection of articles about ODC and the world of Dance

Sima Belmar

Written by

ODC Writer-in-Residence


A collection of articles about ODC and the world of Dance

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