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Before the World Shut Down, a ‘Rite of Spring’ on a Senegal Beach


Before the pandemic streaming boomlet, I didn’t know the work of the Burkina Faso-born musician and choreographer Olivier Tarpaga. I missed his “When Birds Refused to Fly” at the Crossing the Line Festival last year, and now I’m kicking myself. His “Declassified Memory Fragment,” which will be streamed by the Joyce Theater Foundation, Thursday through July 31, is an extraordinary, distilled piece of music and dance. As the title suggests, it conjures fragmented memories, images and stories, often from childhood, gathered and transformed through movement and music by Mr. Tarpaga, three fellow dancers, and four musicians.

Much of the piece deals, indirectly and impressionistically, with the political landscape of post-colonial Africa, particularly Burkina Faso, Kenya and Ivory Coast. Mr. Tarpaga is concerned with how political instability — and in particular a series of violent coups — deform people’s perceptions of power, and their relations with each other. All the dancers are men because “this is a critique of a situation created by men, vying for power,” Mr. Tarpaga said in a phone interview from Philadelphia. (He splits his time between Burkina Faso and Philadelphia.)

The stories are not represented literally. Two men who share a single jacket, for example, may look like dancers engaged in an absurd, friendly duet, but Mr. Tarpaga said, they represent certain leaders’ tendency to share power as a way to subvert the democratic process. Still, you don’t need to know the subtext to be intrigued by the way the men negotiate the ownership and subdivision of the jacket.

The four musicians, sitting on one side of the stage, play in a variety of styles, encompassing African traditional and contemporary urban music. (Mr. Tarpaga composed the score as well as the dance.) At times, a musician enters the dance arena, singing or playing directly to a dancer. A honey-voiced griot sings in a traditional style as a man writhes at his feet, like a broken doll. In their interaction there is pain and mystery, and the sense of worlds colliding.

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