Inspired by the life of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kalakuta Republik is a salutation by Serge Aimé Coulibaly – curator, performer and choreographer of the performance – to a man who greatly contributed to Nigeran politics and helped found the rich musical genre that is Afrobeat. Alongside performers from Faso Danse Théâtre, Coulibaly and his fellow interpreters attempt to capture the essence of Kuti’s life and political ideology in an evening of vibrant, and sometimes even violent, evening of dance.
At the centre of the performance is Coulibaly, standing in his inspiration’s shoes. When Coulibaly first comes on stage, all eyes are on him. His grand persona envelopes the performers surrounding him, and he shows great command over them and the audience. While the other performers are caught repeating the same motions again and again, Coulibaly moves to his own rhythm and spreads himself around the stage. The smile on his face is infectious, and the energy he brings to the stage further adds to the Afrobeat playing.
Despite Coulibaly assuming the role of Kuti, the activist’s charisma is all we really get to see in the first act. Although we see Coulibaly preaching to his fellow performers, the orator’s words are left unheard. We don’t hear his appeals to the community the other dancers represent. It is only in Act 2 that Coulibaly’s voice is finally heard; however, by then, his mocking of humanity’s fear is spiteful, and his demonic, hyena-like laugh unnerving.
The decision to not highlight Kuti’s ethos and his attitudes towards Africa and his city is disappointing, and highlights the barrier stuck between the performers and the audience. If you go into Kalakuta Republik unaware of Kuti’s life, you are unlikely to take away much from the performance other than an appreciation of the Afrobeat style that Kuti and his band helped to create. Kuti’s political ideology and lifestyle are not explicitly conveyed throughout the performance; there is surely a great deal of meaning behind the staging and design of the production, however that is lost on people who have a vague knowledge of Kuti beforehand. The stage’s backdrop, which has a series of clips of Kuti projected onto them at the end, feels like a missed opportunity to share more about the Nigerian figure’s life.
Kalakuta Republik may not reveal much about the man who inspired it, yet that doesn’t stop the evening from being an engrossing evening of dance. The music, unsurprisingly, is terrific; the rhythm pours out the dancers and the music, washing over the audience. The performers’ vigorous movements and combination of solo and group choreography are fascinating to watch, particularly the staggered repetition of movements that builds momentum and intensity during the first act. They put their whole selves into the performance, and it’s hard to decide who to watch when they are performing by themselves – to the point where it becomes exhausting trying to find the purpose of it all.
While Kalakuta Republik may not be the educational and insightful evening some theatregoers may hope for, Coulibaly and Faso Danse Théâtre is an evocative evening of dance that is unflinching in its force and passion. Beating their necks and chests as they leave the Lyceum Theatre, the performers leave the audience wanting to know more about the man whose image is left alone onstage.