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December 19, 2014

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Wassa Coulibaly leaves the Cirque ‘Zu’ crew to run Baobab Stage full time

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Leila Navidi

Dancer and choreographer Wassa Coulibaly rehearses the African dance scene in “One Night for One Drop” at the Cirque du Soleil training center at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on Friday, March 8, 2013.

Wassa Coulibaly’s ‘Tribal Night 360’ Rehearsal

Musicians play for Producer Wassa Coulibaly while she dances during rehearsal of Launch slideshow »
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Wassa Coulibaly performs in Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity at New York-New York.

We talk a lot in these parts about rushing the stage, which is always a benign threat, or promise, depending on the stage and the performance.

Wassa Coulibaly says it is OK to rush the stage at her Baobab Stage theater on Thursday night. In fact, she is inviting such invasive behavior.

But Coulibaly, donning a loose-sleeved green dress of her own design and crimson-died hair, subs “rush” for her own term.

“I hope that people will swarm the stage,” Coulibaly says. “We want them to come up and be inspired by the music and dance with us for as long as they want.”

Long known for her role in the Cirque du Soleil production “Zumanity” at New York-New York, Coulibaly speaks of the show she is directing Thursday night at Baobab Stage. The nondescript theater named for an African, gourd-bearing tree favored by Coulibaly is located in Town Square just across from the entrance of Yard House.

The new production is “Tribal Night 360,” a night of tribal drums and dance beginning at 9:30 p.m. Tickets in the 250-seat theater are $20 (including handling fees) and available at 369-6649 or at the Baobab Stage website.

Coulibaly says the night is an international celebration of rhythmic music and dance, a traipse around the globe to experience the tribal beats “from Africa to Cuba, Haiti to Tahiti, Brazil to Japan.”

Before the “Tribal” performance, longtime Las Vegas performer and yoga and dance instructor Jada Fire is leading a dance workshop at 7 p.m. (cost is $10). It is a fully immersive evening of tribal culture.

“I want people to feel a real connection to what is happening onstage, to jump in and feel a part of it. We want them to get up on their feet and feel the music,” says Coulibaly, an athletic and precision performer who leaps high and long across the stage — and also away from it.

In November, Coulibaly leaped into management of Baobab Stage, envisioning an intimate, international enclave drawing from her own singularly inspiring biography, which is played out in the play “Red Dress” performed Sundays at 2 p.m. at Baobab and written by Coulibaly and directed by her partner, Loppo Martinez.

Coulibaly is from Dakar, Senegal. As a teenager, she bolted for Hawaii with an American percussionist she’d heard as a street performer in Dakar. The two married, but she soon left — or rather fled — that relationship after her husband coerced her into working as a stripper, threatening to have her deported if she did not work as an adult dancer. She wound up at Santa Monica College, studying dance and theater, and auditioned for “Zumanity” a little more than a decade ago.

To the surprise of no one who has ever seen the tirelessly gyrating Coulibaly perform, she earned a spot in the show’s original cast and has been a regular performer in “Zumanity” since it opened in 2003. Since July, she has planned to leave the Cirque show to devote all of her time to the theater and her adjoining clothing boutique, which is filled with her own fashion designs. She is finally making that move, leaving “Zumanity” for good after Sunday’s show.

Why would Coulibaly walk away from such a steady gig as performing in a Cirque show on the Strip? It makes sense when she explains her passion for the theater, where she spends almost double a 40-hour work week, and her own expansive approach to her art.

“I’ve learned a lot, I’ve done a lot, and I’ve been inspired,” Coulibaly says of her time with Cirque. “But I am ready for something new. As an artist, there is always room to grow. I feel a strong calling in me that it is time to flip the page.”

Coulibaly has spent tens of thousands of dollars on the upkeep and operations of the theater. She talks of “a couple of investors being interested” in supporting Baobab Square. But for now she is putting on shows and selling clothes. Along with “Tribal Night 360,” she regularly stages “Red Dress,” “Cabaret” and “Burlesque” late-night shows at the theater.

As do so many Cirque performers, Coulibaly likens performing in the company to being in a family.

“For 10 years, we’ve been together, and that is why I am here — for the show,” Coulibaly says. “My Cirque family will still perform with me here. We have a real connection.”

As for how she envisions her final night with the “Zu” crew, Coulibaly smiles and says, “We want it to be with huge, loud drumming and dancing.”

If you’re an artist who wants to dance with the world, there is no other way to go out.

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

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