REVIEW: DANCE Les Ballets Africains Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
It seems to be an unwritten rule of African and pseudo-African dance that there shall be long plots about young men learning to master ancient traditions. Les Ballets Africains' latest show, Heritage, has a scenario that runs to a record five pages of A4. Something about how Bala Fassake blags his way into the Mandingo Empire and makes off with the magic Balaphone under the nose of the great King of the Sosso - you think I'm making this up, don't you? Like many a western plot, it's really just an excuse to let the wild rumpus begin.

The company, although based in the Republic of Guinea, spends most of its life on the road but the 34 dancers and musicians manage to combine a high-gloss finish with a convincing air of spontaneous excitement. They've been known to pack the Sydney Opera House but this week it's the Hackney Empire, an ideal showcase for their talents. The faded grandeur of Matcham's building, with its wickedly ornate interior of ormolu domes and gilded palm fronds, perfectly suggests the throne room of some fabled African kingdom.

The male dancers of the company have always been extraordinary. Handsome, bare-chested, six-packs at the ready, they power through unending sequences of leaps and tumbles with delicious elasticity. One is used to seeing ballon used to prolong the life of a jump but these dancers use their strength and elevation to suggest an eerily decelerated descent so that their bodies float parallel to the floor like skydivers in freefall. This virtuosity is coloured and enlivened with an amiably relaxed wit and natural charm that cunningly mask their meticulously rehearsed jokes and pratfalls.

All the drumming is superb, the amplified djembes creating a wall of sound that acts on the body like a cardiac massage. Their last British visit in 1990 concentrated on drumming and male dancing but Heritage seems to make more of the women and of the other instruments. The all-important balaphone is a cross between a xylophone and a rudimentary coffee table worn by our hero as he strolls through various village scenes. In the second half there was a welcome change of mood with a lyrical solo on the kora, a heavenly combination of zither, harp and harpsichord beautifully played by a smiling man robed in white. He was joined by koni (a small lute resembling a cricket bat) and bolon (Africa's answer to the double bass) and each soloist was presented and received with the respect and enthusiasm you'd expect at Ronnie Scott's.

The evening lasts two hours and 40 minutes with generous encores. This proved (to me at least) that you can have too much of a good thing but the standing ovation from the ululating audience suggests I may be alone in that view.

Hackney Empire to Sun and 13-15 June (0181-985 2424), and touring nationally