We most often think of Cinderella as a blonde, blue-eyed heroine who overcomes difficult circumstances to meet her perfect prince and live in a castle happily ever after. That’s the Disney model. But in Europe, which spawned our images, there are actually 500 different versions.
And the iconic fairy tale goes back further than that, with versions in Greece (Rhodopis), China (Ye Xian), Vietnam (Tám Cám) and many others. More recently the 1990’s brought some twists of fate, with James Finn Garner’s politically-correct, slightly feminist essay and a new diverse interpretation of Richard Roger’s magical Broadway musical, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.
Cinderella, it turns out that we hardly knew ye.
Things differ more when Cinderella comes out of Africa, including Chinye, from West Africa and Nyasha, a folk tale from Zimbabwe. At the recent Black River African Dance Conference, “Mama” Kadiatou Conte-Forte staged Kiridi for her Balafon West African Dance Ensemble and guest artists at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
This version is inspired by a Republic of Guinea custom where a man can not only have several wives, but father a baby out of wedlock and bring it back to be raised in his home. So here Kiridi is an orphan who is abused by her evil stepmother and jealous sister. Her father loves her, but doesn’t stand up against his wife. While working one day, Kiridi meets a man who steals her heart through “the gift of dancing and acts of bravery.”
But the stepmother forbids both love and dance for Kiridi. So she sends the girl to the Khoumba Wali, a sacred forest where death lurks and spirits sleep, to retrieve something from the Great Spirit.
It is a dangerous journey, but the kind Kiridi befriends an old woman along the way, who is really the Great Spirit in disguise. She protects the young orphan both in the forest and when she returns home.
Not all of the theatrical transitions were apparent in this production, so the dramatic episodes and characters within them tended to wander and the script, delivered in four languages — English, French, Soussou and Malie — was not always clear. Perhaps given a larger budget, there could be projected subtitles, similar to those used in opera.
The story itself served as a loose framework for a celebration of dance and music, which were whole-heartedly exuberant. Balafon has never looked better, with numbers that ranged from Mane, a Soussou rhythm/dance to Soko, a Malinki rhythm. and Balanta, a warriors’ dance.
And kudos to “Mama,” obviously a beloved figure in the community, for taking on the role of the evil stepmother with such commitment and power. They were all backed by a powerful 15-member drum ensemble, which added to the excitement and energy that permeated the audience.
And when they all came together at the end, everyone freely expressing themselves through dance and drum, it was hard not to surrender.