Merlin Nyakam is unstoppable. In Récreátion Primitive, his first piece for his company La Calebasse, he is a powerhouse of manic energy, cavorting and twitching like a hyperactive goblin. And he sends his four dancers into similar turbo-charged displays, even drawing his three musicians into the fray.
Born in Cameroon and now based in France, Nyakam was trained in west African dance, and he (like his dancers) uses its combination of percussive drive, whiplash momentum and articulated musculature to full effect. He revs his shoulders like a motor. He stands with his right side fixed while his left side, seemingly impossibly, ripples like a snake – all in perfect synchronicity to the wrong-footing rhythms.
He stands with his right side fixed while his left side, seemingly impossibly, ripples like a snake
It’s impressive, but Nyakam is too hyper to focus. The premise of Récréation Primitive is something to do with primordial nature contrasted with human action, but the scenes tumble out in all directions. The dancers lope in long-armed chimpanzee strides, sometimes screeching like apes – there is a Space Odyssey moment when they “discover” that plastic tubes can be used as tools, whether to make music or to biff each other on the head. There are frenzied rituals, the chalk dust on the performers’ bodies clouding the air like mystic energy. Nyakam summons up spirits, the dancers jigging as he flexes his sorcerous arms like a puppet-master.
Some scenes are played for comedy, as when the dancers (only one a woman) dress like fishwives, nagging and tutting at the musicians. For contrast, there are film projections: odd Rorschach split-screens of Nyakam’s fluttering body; close-ups of the dancers’ faces contorted with exaggerated tics; and, oddest of all, flashes of news footage showing exploding bombs. You can almost see the sparks flying from Nyakam’s imagination.
He broadcasts but doesn’t really channel this energy: Récréation Primitive has megavolts of power, but it’s utterly baffling.