It brought the crowd to their feet in Iowa, in Vermont, in Harlem, in Princeton.
And now the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project is set to play Philadelphia. The troupe, based here and in Burkina Faso, will perform its dance/theater/music piece Declassified Memory Fragment Thursday through Saturday at FringeArts. The show is an “open letter” about African life, politics, and, as cofounder Olivier Tarpaga puts it, “the fact that in our tradition, music and dance are of one body.”
What will you see if you go? Be ready, first of all, for what you hear: music, both traditional and contemporary, by the Dafra Kura Band. You will also hear sounds of revolution, “the actual recorded sounds of the 2014 million-person uprising in Burkina Faso,” says troupe cofounder Olivier Tarpaga.
But also “you will see dance theater in which traditional meets modern, an exploration of politics, as it plays out in certain countries, such as Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast. It is theater telling about the circulation of power, passing from hand to hand, of its impact on the life of today.”
And there will be motorcycles. More on them in a minute.
At one point, two men who are political enemies try to wear a single suit. “They both want to wear the suit, inhabit power, and they struggle,” Tarpaga says. That uneasy dance arises from the practice of political winners inviting their challengers to become prime minister. Mwai Kibaki did that in Kenya in 2008, the same year Robert Mugabe did it in Zimbabwe.
Elsewhere in the 60- to 70-minute piece, an old griot sings a traditional song, “but the dancer is doing a modern dance, and they collide in a big, beautiful explosion,” he says. “I think they can live next to each other. That’s the modern world. We don’t want to lose either side of the equation.” Which might be the theme of the entire show.
It’s a fair bet that Baker & Tarpaga is the only dance troupe based both in Philadelphia and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Founded in 2004 by Tarpaga and his spouse and fellow ethnomusicologist Esther Baker-Tarpaga, they have performed all over the world. Both Tarpagas have taught at the University of the Arts, with Olivier now teaching at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.
Declassified Memory Fragment is actually an extended part of Philadelphia Fringe 2017, with support from a New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project Presentation Grant, and lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Tarpaga speaks of learning the traditional arts when he went to music events with his mother. “Many of my friends were griots,” he says. “They taught me those arts.”
But it was his father, a longtime bandleader and sax player, who inspired him to take up an instrument. “We always had music in the house,” he says. “I wanted to be a modern musician, and I am. We do blues, urban African music. But I wanted to start on a different instrument from my father. So I began on the djembe.”
This is where music and dance are inseparable. “If you hear drummers begin a traditional rhythm, or a singer begin a traditional song, there will be a dance you do to that, and people will know this and begin to dance it. The music and the dance are one, which we hope to project in our theater piece.”
And the motorcycles? “This is a cultural, smiling image for anyone in Burkina Faso. Eighty percent of the population owns one, and entire families — father, mother, children, babies — ride all together. It is a cultural reminder of everyday life in our country.”
At one point, one motorcyclist revs his engine in a machine-gun rhythm as spotlights sweep the audience – and the feeling turns dark. “It changes again to power,” Tarpaga says, “the question of uncontrolled military power.”
Will U.S. audiences understand the metaphors? “Oh, this tour has been a big smile,” he says. “People enjoy the music and movement so much, they like it even before they need to understand. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve had extremely emotional standing ovations, and when the show is over, people come up to us, saying, ‘I have to talk to you.’ We couldn’t believe it.”
After being driver, translator, director, and much more for the tour, Tarpaga says he’s glad to be back. “For me,” he says, “Philly is home, and FringeArts is a beautiful space. It is such an honor. We will leave everything on the stage. We’ll die on stage for everybody if we have to.”
Declassified Memory Fragment
Performances Thursday through Saturday at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.
Tickets: $29; students $15.
Information: 215-413-1318 or fringearts.com.