BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, NYC
May 25–27, 2007
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Baba Chuck Davis is 70 years old and DanceAfrica—his gracious gift to the world—has just turned 30. The festival’s program notes includes a timeline of past seasons, abounds with names of ancestors and elders, and apparently accounts for everyone involved in manifesting this year’s production. Since it really does “take a village,” thank goodness Baba Chuck and his village are still no ways tired.
30 Years of DanceAfrica: Remember! Honor! Respect! An African Dance Odyssey was the brightest highlight of New York’s busy spring season. At a neat two hours, it was also one of the festival’s best paced shows.
Drummers and dancers from Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble (Philadelphia) called down spiritual beings from the Afro-Cuban tradition: the trickster-messenger Elegba; and Babalu-Aye, whose scruffy appearance belies his healing power. An eerily beautiful candle-lit memorial followed with an honor roll including Alvin Ailey, Betty Carter, Gregory Hines, Bob Marley, Charles Moore, and Pearl Primus and numerous others.
The Drumsong African Ballet Theater (Brooklyn) danced the expansive, exuberant SeneGambian sabar to a big, galloping pump-a-thump rhythm from splendid percussionists. In the finale, women dressed in glittering finery flung their arms and legs like stars bristling energy in all directions until the whole universe is ablaze.
Uganda’s exquisite Ndere Troupe (joined by BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble) presented dances of welcome and war, courtship and power, totally bedazzling us with Okwerengyekyerera, a dance to foster wisdom and peace among all peoples. If you took the letters of its title and stacked them one on top of the other, they would resemble the towers of clay pots the women balanced atop their heads as they sashayed and shimmied with ease.
Most of this traditional dancing features forceful, repetitive movements rendered in unison by large choruses. To keep our interest, these troupes rely upon a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds, the performers’ energy and skill, and clever patterns that continuously reposition and interweave the ensembles’ subgroups. In Vision 5—A Question of Modesty, Harlem’s venerable Forces of Nature Dance Theatre takes a different approach. Choreographer Abdel R. Salaam employs a collage of ballet, modern, and African movements, performed with exacting beauty, to examine how religion has sought to control the bodies of African women. Although compact in time, Vision 5, like DanceAfrica, is large in spirit and import.