by OBT historian Linda Besant
I’m the ballet historian at OBT, and many people know me as a total ballet geek. When they ask me, as they often do, “What’s your favorite ballet?” I’m stymied, because I love so many. But I do have a “must see list.” If a ballet on this list is being performed and I can possibly get there, I “must see” it.
Lambarena is on the “must see list.” Without fail, it makes me grateful to be alive. It’s an unlikely melding of African dance and ballet movement, danced to a CD of the same name that overlays the music of Bach with traditional African singing and percussion. Back in 1995, choreographer Val Caniparoli was searching for an idea for his next ballet when the CD came to his attention and he gladly embraced it. He enlisted the help of African dancer Naomi Diouf, and they made a dance that is a kind of artistic holism—the sum of its effect is greater than one might expect given its parts.
I can’t speak for everyone who loves Lambarena, but a share of the reason it is meaningful to me is that this ballet has a two-degrees-of-separation connection to Albert Schweitzer. In 1952, when I was in kindergarten and just becoming aware of the world beyond my own family, Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a doctor at Lambaréné, a missionary hospital in what is now Gabon in west Africa. He passed away the year I graduated from high school. He was a true humanitarian, the Mother Teresa of my youth.
Schweitzer was a theologian of note who performed and studied the music of J.S. Bach in addition to working as a medical missionary. As an idealistic kid who loved music and wanted to explore religion, to me he seemed like a hero; he played music and helped people every day. As a teenager, what held me most strongly was his philosophy of “reverence for life.” He wrote,
“A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.”
“Respect for life, overcoming coarser impulses and hollow doctrines, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature.”
At Lambaréné, Schweitzer had a unique piano, with organ-like pedals. Every day at noon, he played Bach, and his music mingled with the singing of the local people as they worked. In 1995, composers Hughes de Courson and Pierre Akendengué, with conductor Tomas Gubitsch, created Lambarena: Bach to Africa—an Homage to Albert Schweitzer. They dared to imagine the glorious concord of Bach’s orderly, tonal progressions and the polyphonic, polyrhythmic African music. Then choreographer Val Caniparoli found the CD, and made Lambarena, a ballet he called “a joyous celebration of cultures.”
You listen to Albert Schweitzer play Bach, and see photos from his life, in this short video:
“I don’t know what your destiny will be,” Schweitzer wrote, “but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Oregon Ballet Theatre, in the way that we know how to serve, offers this joyous celebration of cultures to the people of our city.
You can see Lambarena at Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spring program, Chromatic Quartet, opening April 19th at the Newmark Theatre.
Find Out More About Albert Schweitzer and His Work
Albert Schweitzer: My Life is My Argument
A video biography of Schweitzer (41 min long)
Albert Schweitzer wrote the narration to this documentary, which was made in 1957 (81 min long)