by Ariel Osterweis Scott
Navigating my way through a maze of shipping crates and mango stands along Dakarʼs urban coastline, I
stumble past a bougainvillaea-draped entryway into the Centre Aere de la Banque Centrale des E ́tats de
lʼAfrique de lʼOuest, comprised of a chipped swimming-pool and a dilapidated dance studio. Originally built
for bank employees, the Centre has been reincarnated as a public arts and sports site, where Senegalese
dance company, 5e` Dimension, rehearses.
Drummers punctuate the beginning of director-choreographer Jean Tambaʼs ʻʻEau bʼniteʼʼ with percussive
beats, alternating with the sounds of dancersʼ feet, voices, and breath to provide the pieceʼs rhythmic
infrastructure. Subtitled ʻʻLʼeau dʼici et lʼeau de la`ʼʼ (ʻʻThe water from here and the water from thereʼʼ), ʻʻEau
bʼniteʼʼ is a play on words in French and Wolof, meaning ʻʻwater if humanʼʼ or ʻʻwater if socially acceptable.ʼʼ
While animating waterʼs tenuous future by piping in and out of the dance with fluid flourishes and ebbing
gasps, a flutist descends into a middle-split, displaying the fluidity between performance genres in Senegal,
where musicians dance and dancers sing.
Emerging as a unified quartet, the dancersʼ arms arc downward, as if to scoop up the sand and water that
will cover the performance stage. Then Marianne Mbengue, the sole female in ʻʻEau bʼnite,ʼʼ reclines,
enacting ritual cleansing. As the dancers labor through rehearsal, perspiration seeps to the skin, and the
expenditure of water appears in a form that might otherwise go unnoticed onstage. The intimacy of rehearsal
provides glimpses behind many a theatrical mask: spaces between repetitions reveal the dancersʼ
frustrations and humor amidst feats of strength and flow.
The choreography alternates collective passages with breakneck solos, blending African, jazz, modern, and
ballet techniques. Tamba terms this eclectic combination ʻʻme ́tisse danseʼʼ (ʻʻmixed danceʼʼ), and his
dancers seamlessly transition from high-kicking ballet battements to rapid traditional Senegalese footwork.
Provoking themselves in the mirror, they muscle through potential answers to global questions: their dancing
bodies are sites where water politics become localized, re-imagined on a micro scale, body to body.
The men frantically scour their thighs and arms, as if to shed water as contagion. Mbengue is sheltered from
such conjuring of pollution, relegated to her domestic bath scene, where water is a holistic tonic. Tamba
claims that Mbengue is not given a gender-specific role in the piece, yet her lone status is born of genderrelated
circumstances, as several women formerly in the company left due to marriage and pregnancy.
When will 5e` Dimension find a way to integrate pregnant bodies into its spectacles? Mbengue is called
upon to evoke domesticity while her peers are forced to choose between domestic lives and dance careers,
unable to blend the two.
Considering 5e` Dimensionʼs context in predominantly Muslim Senegal, Mbengueʼs dancing, despite
occasionally enacting domestic scenes, actively eschews certain traditions reserved for women. That is,
unless one considers an ancient Senegalese viewpoint that has survived the transformation of numerous
traditions: when asked how dance is perceived in his country, Tamba declares, ʻʻThe profession is a noble
one.ʼʼ Dancing the domestic in an undomestic context, Mbengue replaces one tradition with another, asking
us to consider mutuality. To follow a trail of water as it cycles through the body is to begin to apprehend
Tambaʼs claim that dance is a noble profession, for who but a dancer would continue to reach for that which
can slip so easily out of the hands? Manifest in the studio of 5e` Dimension, rehearsal is that rare space
where repetition relinquishes precise replication, and the compulsion for one more sip promises a return to
the familiar and unexpected.