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October 31, 2014

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Ex-‘Zumanity’ artist Wassa Coulibaly takes on the world with ‘Tribal Night’

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Wassa Coulibaly’s “Tribal Night” at Baobab Stage in Town Square. Coulibaly is at right and is joined by cast member Paola Brand Restrepo at left and Kishema Pendu in the background.

Wassa Coulibaly’s ‘Tribal Night’ at Baobab Stage

Wassa Coulibaly’s “Tribal Night” at Baobab Stage in Town Square. Launch slideshow »
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Wassa Coulibaly performs in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity at New York-New York.

Wassa Coulibaly’s ‘Tribal Night 360’ Rehearsal

Musicians play for Producer Wassa Coulibaly while she dances during rehearsal of Launch slideshow »

Beginning this weekend, “Zumanity” frolics toward its 10th anniversary at New York-New York with a 10-show engagement hosted by NeNe Leakes of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

Meantime, an artist who was around for nine of those years of Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity” is heading up a thunderous show at a cozy theater in Town Square.

We speak of the woman I refer to relentlessly as “my hero,” Wassa Coulibaly, a member of the original “Zumanity” cast when the show opened a decade ago.

Coulibaly was one of the standout performers until leaving in October at the peak of her acrobatic acumen to focus full time on her true passion, Baobab Stage at Town Square. Coulibaly presents a series of shows at the theater named for a tree in her native Senegal.

On Thursday night at 8 is the latest production of the rhythmic festival, “Tribal Night 6th Edition,” a celebration of drumming and dancing from the cultures of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Japan, Egypt, Tahiti, Mali, Cuba, India and Brazil.

We might as well drop Las Vegas into that cultural Cuisinart, given that the woman who envisioned and assembled this show lives here. (Tickets are $15; go to the Baobab Stage website for information.) A total of 50 percussionists and performers, 48 of whom live in Las Vegas, are to take part.

At Baobab, Coulibaly is wearing not only many hats but also many dresses. Her fashion designs fill the adjoining boutique (and a dance number doubling as a fashion show starts the night). She also is the one who handles the theater schedule, staff, marketing, advertising, public relations, the shows’ production and rehearsal schedule (including late-night sessions at her Las Vegas home that last four hours), all of it.

This week when I asked simply, “How’s it going?” she answered, “We must sell tickets! We cannot have more people onstage than are in the theater!”

Coulibaly’s story is oft told but heroic nonetheless. As a teenager, she left Dakar, Senegal, for Hawaii after taking up with an American percussionist she’d met when he was performing on the streets of her home city.

They married, but the relationship turned very sour very fast when he demanded that she become a stripper or risk being deported. That segment of her life became the spine of her autobiographic production “Red Dress” at Baobab Stage.

She wound up bolting once more, to Southern California and Santa Monica College, where she dazzled the staff in the dance and theater department. That led to her audition in “Zumanity” in 2003, and being a member of the Cirque family inspired her to create her own artistic family and home in Las Vegas.

Coulibaly is one to support as one of the most courageous members of the extended Las Vegas family of artists who pitched a secure career with Cirque to pursue a dream of running a theater.

Meeting her was a moment not forgotten. It was last year during a rehearsal for one of the earlier “Tribal Night” performances. We talked for a few minutes at the side of Baobab, then she hustled off to perform a number with the drum crew.

When she got onstage, she leapt three feet from a standing position, popping airborne like a cork exploding from a champagne bottle. The visionary from Senegal hasn’t landed yet.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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