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Review: An African Dance Matriarch Brings Out the Knives

When the august Senegalese choreographer and dancer Germaine Acogny was born, on Pentecost in 1944, a dove appeared on the windowsill. “Mother has returned,” people said, implying that the girl was the reincarnation of her father’s mother, a Yoruban priestess. There was much the girl seemed set to inherit, including her grandmother’s ceremonial knives.

Fast forward several decades, when Ms. Acogny knocked on her father’s door in Paris. When he asked, “Who is it? she answered, “Your mother.” What had she come for? The knives.

These are two of the stories that Ms. Acogny tells in her elegantly intense autobiographical solo “Somewhere at the Beginning,” which had its American premiere at La MaMa on Thursday as part of the Crossing the Line festival. “I will not kill you, father,” she says. While the show isn’t a patricide, it is an argument with the patriarch — and with patriarchy and colonialism — simmering with murderous rage.

In this production — smartly directed by Mikaël Serre — Ms. Acogny’s father, who died in 1979, is represented by a photo of him in military uniform and by text from his memoir, projected in English on the set’s rain curtain. These excerpts recount how her father, growing up when Senegal was still a French colony, was trained by teachers and priests to despise his mother’s religion and to strive to become as Christian and European as possible.

Ms. Acogny, who speaks in French (with English supertitles), talks back, blaming her father for separating her from her heritage, causing her to ask, “Who am I?” Power should pass from woman to woman, she says. And yet, she also says, the plight of women in Senegal is dire: forced to obey husbands they can never leave. When her own first husband took a second wife, she did not tolerate it. “I left and became what I am,” she says.

The woman she became is often called “the mother of contemporary African dance,” and the dance sections in “Somewhere at the Beginning,” which she choreographed, have more cumulative power than their simplicity might suggest. In one surprisingly effective sequence, she dances to Johnny Cash’s late-period cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” fluttering a hand at her forehead, slapping her thighs and churning her skirt in what looks like sorcery.

It’s the subterranean drive of these ritualistic dance sequences that propels the production’s boldest leap: when Ms. Acogny suddenly becomes Medea, reciting Euripides and tearing apart pillows to symbolize killing her children. The parallels between the Greek story and Ms. Acogny’s situation are slightly forced, as are the allusions to the migrant crisis in Europe and a final note of forgiveness. But Ms. Acogny is never less than believable. She has the knives.

Germaine Acogny

Through Sept. 28 at La MaMa; lamama.org.

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