The world-renowned dance company Les Ballets Africains has completed four U.S. tours since it last visited Utah. Saturday night, the group will return to Salt Lake City after a decade-long absence.
"We haven't been to Salt Lake for a long time — at least 10 years," Africains production manager Tim Speechley said by phone while riding on a bus somewhere near Richmond, Va.
"The company is really happy to be coming back," he said. "It's a beautiful city with the mountains. We've been to the U.S. four times since then, and every time we'd plan a tour, the dancers would ask about coming back to Salt Lake."
While in Utah, the company will perform "Mandinka Memories," a new work that centers on the themes of heritage and reflection of accomplishments. The performance is part of the University of Utah's Black Awareness Month activities.
Performing "Mandinka Memories" and other works from the group's repertoire is a great opportunity to expose people to African culture, Speechley said.
The work was choreographed by Africains artistic director Hamidou Bangoura, who became interested in the Mandinka people of West Africa while on a trip to Mali about four years ago, Speechley said. "He went to a museum and was very impressed with (the folklore) and decided to learn more about it."
"Mandinka Memories" is based on the folk story of Queen Sogolon Conde and her son, Soundiata Keita, who was born paralyzed. The work follows Keita who, according to legend, miraculously regained the power to walk and later went on to become a skilled hunter and revered 13th-century warrior king.
According to Speechley, the production consists of large-ensemble celebration dances that feature vibrant costumes depicting various African animals. There is also a re-enactment of the battle in which Keita defeats Soumaoro Kante, one of the most feared kings in medieval Mali.
While most of the other works in the company's repertoire are about music and movement, "'Mandinka Memories' is a real kind of start-to-finish story," Speechley said. It will unfold through traditional dance, acrobatics and music. "It's classic Guinea style."
Les Ballets Africains' dances "are mainly traditional," he said. "It's a large dance company of about 30 people performing traditional African dancing based on (Guinea) heritage. It's very lively and energetic."
Part of the classic Guinea style includes the use of live music. "Nothing is recorded," Speechley said. "All the musicians sit on the side of the stage. They sit half in the wings and half on stage. It's a quirky and unusual part of Guinea dancing. They sit so they can see the dancers and time the music with the pace of the dancers. That is something that makes them unusual."
In 1952, Guinean choreographer Keita Fodeba formed Les Ballets Africains in Paris. The dancers based their tours out of Paris for a number of years. In 1958, the Republic of Guinea gained its independence from France and invited the company to become Guinea's national dance ensemble. Since then the dancers have adopted the role of roving ambassadors, sharing enthusiasm for their country with audiences around the world.
"They are the national dance company," Speechley said. "The company is promoting their culture all around the world. They're proud of their heritage and want people to know all about Guinea."
If you go
What: Les Ballets Africains
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Kingsbury Hall, University of Utah
How much: $19.50-$29.50