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Moved by an African Spirit : Dance: The KanKouran company will bring alive the cultures of Senegal, Mali and Guinea in a performance this week in Costa Mesa.


Growing up in Senegal, West Africa, Assane Konte reveled in annual summer-harvest celebrations marked by arid nights of exuberant dancing and thunderous drumming.

"Dancing is a part of life" in Africa, says Konte, "not something you go to school to learn."

Traditional arts are intractably linked to every facet of indigenous African societies, and, to preserve and share his homeland's heritage, Konte co-founded a dance troupe a decade ago after moving to the United States. The KanKouran West African Dance Company returns to Costa Mesa on Wednesday, bringing alive the cultures of Senegal, Mali and Guinea in a 7 p.m. performance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The troupe is based in Washington D.C.

It will appear once again locally as part of the countywide Imagination Celebration, a national children's art festival that is running through May 2 .

The troupe, named after an ancient Senegalese spirit said to guide boys on the brink of manhood, is a national touring company of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which fathered the Imagination Celebration.

Konte, choreographer, master dancer and artistic director, established the company with Senegalese drummer Abdou Kounta. He began dancing professionally at 15 and traversed Africa--he still visits annually--studying several cultures' music, dance and customs.

"Every ethnic group has its own culture," he said in a recent phone interview from Washington. "Some dance only if somebody passes away. . . . Some work bending down to the ground, so they dance very low" to the earth.

Peoples from Senegal, Mali and Guinea all dance "very high," Konte said, describing the explosive energy he said characterizes all three works to be presented here by the 19-member touring troupe:

* "Dung Dung Ba," an acrobatic dance originating among the Mandinke people of Guinea, approximates those performed before customary summer wrestling matches and exhibits the strength of the virile young fighters.

* "Sabar," a Senegalese national dance of the Wolof people evincing pride of place, practiced at weddings, baptisms and other festive occasions.

* "Mandiani," said to be one of the fastest and most exciting West African dances, performed in Senegal, Mali and Guinea, celebrates young men's and women's initiation into adulthood.

The troupe will also re-enact the Drum Call, a rousing musical interlude that initiates all West African ceremonies with djimba drum beats "requesting" a spirit blessing for the rituals to begin.

KanKouran's audiences see West African dance "exactly the way it is done in the villages," Konte said, although the troupe has a reputation for favoring Westernized razzle-dazzle.

Washington Post critic Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in a 1985 review that the company seemed bent on presenting a Westernized "show" that emphasized "theatricality, entertainment, virtuosity, comedy and variety" rather than the culture's transcendent spirituality.

Konte bristles over what he calls the American media's woeful lack of knowledge of African culture: "What--we don't have laughter and comedy and entertainment in Africa?".

The troupe is composed of 35 dancers from America, the Caribbean and Africa and is part of Washington's Institute for the Study of African Culture. One of its chief aims is to promote cross-cultural education, and to that end, it has taken part in Imagination Celebrations across the country, including the 1988 program in Orange County. The company also offers a summer dance program, in which youths are paid to take classes then perform in public.

Last week, in fact, Konte said, he attended a White House reception for National Youth Service Day honoring people and organizations that have helped change children's lives.

Hostess Hillary Rodham Clinton was "great," he said.

"It was all about the next generation," he said, "and that's the whole thing we're dedicated to."

KanKouran West African Dance Company will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $3. (714) 556-2787.

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