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Striking Congo sculptures inspire dance premiere

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From left, Byb Chanel Bibene, Sevan Kelle Boult, Nafi Thompson and Afia Thompson appear in “Nikisi Nkondi: Sacred Kongo Sculpture.” (Courtesy Jen Philip)

Bay Area choreographer Byb Chanel Bibene’s Kiandanda Dance Theater premiere in ODC Theater’s seventh Walking Distance Dance Festival next week represents a defining point in his academic and artistic career.

“Everything has come together. All my research and discovery are coming together,” says Bibene, whose 15-minute piece “Nikisi Nkondi: Sacred Kongo Sculpture” correlates with “Dancing Bodies of Central Africa,” his dissertation for his master’s degree in dance at Saint Mary’s College of California.

The idea for the thesis and dance initially came to him years ago during a visit to a museum in Paris where he encountered an extraordinary sacred art work from the Republic of Congo called nikisi.

“I looked at the sculpture, and it was pretty striking. I thought, ‘What is this?’ I had never heard of this,” says Bibene, a native of the Republic of Congo who moved to the Bay Area in 2009.

He became obsessed with finding out more about the minkisi (plural of nikisi) used by religious healers before European colonists took over the region in the 19th century. The vessels, which allowed spirits to communicate with people, he says, are deeply rooted in African culture.

Wanting to go in a direction of “what was not documented,” Bibene’s extensive research centered on the rituals of ceremonies, and in making his dance, he used a “deductive process” that included referencing his own past, particularly from his mother’s ethnic group. He also was inspired by contemporary traditions.

With its cast of 14 dancers wearing body paint, one live musician (playing flute and percussion), recorded music (by Pygmies as well as living French composers) and a spoken word artist (performing in English), “Nikisi Nkondi” isn’t abstract.

“The movement is not saying the same thing as the text,” says Bibene, adding that the piece’s words explain the journey.

Having become an expert on minkisi, lecturing locally on the “phenomenological analysis of dancing bodies in central Africa” including how most dances were functional — for births, weddings, death and more — Bibene still has questions, which he’ll address in a trip home to Africa this summer.

In the meantime, he’s pleased to present his dance not only at ODC, but also in a performance installation throughout the Museum of the African Diaspora on June 2-3.

As for the more distant future, the dancemaker, scholar and world traveler, whose background includes a bachelor’s degree in finance, also dreams to one day have his own studio, a place to put art and studies into practice.

IF YOU GO

Walking Distance Dance Festival
Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F.
When: May 15-20
Tickets: $20 per show; $60 pass
Contact: (415) 863-9834, odc.dance/tickets
LINEUP
May 15-16: Yara Travieso’s “La Medea,” 8 p.m.
May 17-18: Kiandanda Dance Theater’s “Nkisi Nkondi,” 8 p.m.
May 19-20: Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Riener, Phillip Greenlief, Shoko Hikage, Claudia La Rocco, 6:30 p.m.
May 19-20: Belinda McGuire, 8 p.m.
Note: “Nikisi Nkondi” performances also are at 4 and 7 p.m. June 2 and 1 and 4 p.m. June 3 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F.; admission is $5 to $10. Visit www.moadsf.org

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