Another Kind of Fireworks

July 4, 2013

Lincoln Center can be surprising. Sure, we’re disappointed (miffed, really) that there’s no dance in the Lincoln Center Festival this summer. But the infectious performance of Fendika, from Ethiopia, last night makes up for it. In a free performance at the narrow David Rubinstein Atrium  (one of the off-the-main-campus venues), the group was smashing. (Two years ago I posted a blog on another terrific free event at a Lincoln Center property.)

Right away you realize that the voices have a range (very high or very low), textures (sometimes gruff), and a lilt that are pleasantly unfamiliar. And then the dancing starts.

Melaku Belay, who heads this tiny troupe of musicians and dancers, is absolutely magnetic. You see him first at the mike, seemingly just going along with it, in deference to the two more powerful singers and the highly energetic woman dancer, Zinash Tsegaye. He eases into the dancing, first with simple steps, then with a kind of hiccough that rocks his chest. It’s like something grabs one part of his torso and then another. When they both dance, I have the feeling that they are the drum. Sometimes Zinash would jump so forcefully that her cluster of necklaces would almost hit her in the face.

Each time the two dancers disappear behind a curtain, they emerge in different costumes that signify different regions of Ethiopia. Sometimes the dancing tells a story. At one point Melaku shakes a hand over Zinash as though sprinkling her with energy, and she goes into a kind of spirit possession. She is a joyful dancer, and the chemistry between them is joyful too.

The smile on Melaku’s face when he’s dancing is softly beatific—with a hint of mischief, as though he’s enjoying a joke. When he gets near one of the musicians, they reflect that smile too. Maybe the look on his face has something to do with his sense of freedom within tradition. I found this statement about him on his website: “Throughout his career, he has tried to create and develop his own style according to his own experiences and researches through his country, with a touch of improvisation and fantasy. For Melaku, tradition doesn’t have to be frozen or static, but vibrant, audacious and innovative.”

Toward the end of the hour, he shimmies, working up to a tornado level of vibration, with emphatic breaks like ecstasy/exhaustion exclamation points. We’re all screaming and clapping. It reminds me that the shimmying we saw in sixties social dance is a pale version of the roots of shimmy.

On the way home I walk past 79th street, where people are flocking toward the boat basin to see the fireworks. But I was thinking, I’ve seen the fireworks. I’ve seen Melaku Belay dance.