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Christian names were banned while Faustin Linyekula was growing up. Then the name of his country (Zaïre) changed (to Democratic Republic of Congo). His artistic mentor Kabako died of the plague far from home, buried by a villager whose family “had been eaten by death”. His friend Vumi was thrown into prison after President Kabila’s assassination and languishes on death row where “torture has become another organ in my mind”.
Raw material doesn’t get much rawer. But how do Linyekula, barely 30, and his dance and visual theatre collective even scrape the surface of their country’s successive agonies on stage?
Their approach takes the form of a loose journey that starts even as you file slowly into the theatre, past a talking-head video of Papa Rovinsky – asking “what is your dream?” as he waits for death – and grimly amateur photos taken inside Kinshasa prison. The symbolic quest is to retrieve Kabako’s body and give him a decent burial, but grief and ritual catharsis are also played out at the public level.
While Linyekula narrates from the sidelines, these personal and shared histories are brought to life through a hybrid mix of dance, video, song and audio recordings. Semi-naked dancers emerge as timeless archetypes with painted bodies, projecting shadows as beautiful as cave paintings. Except that the numbers chalked on their backs are a nod to street football and their feline elegance becomes tortured, then trancelike. Elegiac music – Mozart’s Requiem, Kisangani chant, Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” – is punctuated by Serge Kakudji’s unearthly countertenor.
“Dinozord” is the 19-year-old hip-hop dancer who chose his name as “the last of my race”. This inspired Linyekula to construct a set of “last of” increasingly polemical aphorisms, repeated three times during the show, culminating in “I am the spittoon of the Republic” . . . “I’ll delete the lot!”. But unlike the reworking of a symphonic theme, this repetition doesn’t bring fresh insight. The production is packed with rich ingredients but the mix of artistic and documentary needs to be more subtle and coherent.
“Are you fed up of my memories?” asks Linyekula at one point. Far from it, but the audience doesn’t have to be kept at arm’s length.
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