Fear — its chill fingers twisting your kishkes when you realize that a hungry lion is eyeing you for dinner — is an emotion we’ve all experienced.
Okay, so the trigger doesn’t have to be a lion. It might be a sickening jolt while riding the elevator, or a skid on the freeway that makes your heart pound violently while sweat pops out in beads on your forehead. The dancers of the Compagnie Jant-Bi are from Africa, however, and for their purposes a lion will do.
Based on the “faux lion” ritual of Senegal, the piece they presented on Saturday in the Peak Performances series at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University invites fear into the theater so it can be mocked. “At the Same Time We Were Pointing a Finger at You, We Realized We Were Pointing Three at Ourselves” is a rambunctious carnival with a subtext.
Compagnie Jant-Bi has a history of working with international artists like Susanne Linke (“Le Coq est Mort”) and Kota Yamazaki (“Fagaala”), and these encounters sought to place Africa in the context of a wider world. Globalization, however, brings with it new fears. The current project, created in collaboration with South African choreographer Robyn Orlin, concerns itself as much with permeable borders and fragile identities as it does with oversize pussycats. Here the King of the Jungle takes a backseat when the “backup singer” Tchébé Bertrand Saky is forced into women’s clothing, prompting him to reflect upon his body and upon the difficult lot of women. In another sly episode, Saky pretends to take a call from Gov. Chris Christie assuring him that, no, these West Africans do not carry the dreaded Ebola.
Then there is the fear that preys on passive, modern audiences — the nightmare of being asked to participate in the show …
Before their faux-faux ritual can begin, the performers must expel all evil spirits, which means clambering into the auditorium and swatting at us loudly with flip-flop sandals. Is there an evil spirit in the arm-rest of your seat? Whack! Much later, Hans Peter Diop Ibaghino portrays a hunted rabbit, quaking with fright. He takes refuge in the audience, though why this silly bunny thinks he will be safe among us is anybody’s guess. In a reference to the fears of immigrants, the performers demand to see our IDs; and at the climax of the ritual a viewer is dragged on stage and hooded, while we are asked to decide if he should become the lion’s lunch. How much do we fear terrorism? In a desperate hour, would our own community betray us?
Fortunately, we can afford to laugh at these questions, because “At the Same Time” is a circus. With the men dressed in neon-bright sportswear and shades, or in motley accessories, they are constantly taking “selfies” and making videos with their mobile phones. The choreographer sends us “text messages” that appear on a hanging screen, translating the dialog from Wolof or commenting on the action. To the crash of thunder, Jant-Bi’s imposing founder, Germaine Acogny, appears on screen as a mother goddess with tongue firmly in cheek. Hot-footed dances punctuate the charivari of songs and stories, and the performers may display a relaxed elegance (Claude Marius Gomis) or a fierce intensity of purpose (Aliou Ndoye), as each scene requires.
“At the Same Time” has a knack for creating and releasing tensions with a smile. In a society beset by fears that range from gun violence to “Snowpocalypse,” we could only hope it might become a television series.
More performances are scheduled from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1. Visit peakperfs.org for information.
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