at the Medinah Temple

October 3-5

The Dance Center of Columbia College is stepping out. Last month it was “Dancing in the State,” a rough-and-ready circus of some six or seven acts performed in and around the giant arena of the State of Illinois Center. This month the Dance Center produced “DanceAfrica/Chicago: Honoring the Source” at the Medinah Temple, a celebration (based on a similar one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York) of the African spirit in music and dance by three American troupes.

Seeing dance in such spectacular venues is wonderful, but it does create pressure on choreographers and dancers to fill the space, somehow match it. We’re used to seeing ballet in large houses, and I think the dancegoer’s eye seizes on and magnifies the often well-known steps, bestowing on them a dignity, even majesty that comes as much from our awareness of ballet’s tradition as from what we see onstage. But we’re less aware of the traditions–the technique, purposes, history–behind modern and so-called ethnic forms. That makes it tough for audiences and performers alike, especially in a big, scary house.

Moreover African dance, so often boisterous and jubilant, loves a rockin’ crowd. But the evening I was at the Medinah, the impressive but not overflow audience seemed uneasy, ambivalent, half ready to get up and dance themselves and half intent on giving the performers a respectful and silent attention. There was a lot of shushing going on–factions at war with one another–and a general sense that in this setting the “correct” behavior was elusive, problematic.

But however uneasy, everyone there–black, white, or somewhere in between–wanted to experience African dance. The presentation of this concert certainly suggested authenticity. But was this the genuine article? These American troupes–the Ko-Thi Dance Company from Milwaukee, the African-American Dance Ensemble from North Carolina, and Chicago’s own Muntu Dance Theatre–have clearly researched African dance and music pretty thoroughly. Still, they have to have made choices, and perhaps some compromises. Last summer I saw Ballet du Lac Tumba, from Bikoro, Zaire, at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina; the dancers had themselves killed the animals whose pelts were hung around their waists. How much authenticity is practical, or even desirable? The Zairian troupe painted elaborate designs on their skin with white clay–clearly authentic, but in the heat of the dancing it melted into whitish smears.

Unfortunately I’m no scholar of African dance, but I have some ideas about it nonetheless. From what I’ve seen and heard, the African spirit celebrates the individual–not in a pushy, competitive, American way but in a true democratic way, glorying in differences for their own sake. The prescribed forms and rhythms of the dance are an empty container for the performer to fill–with herself, her way of moving her arm, whether generously or languidly, her way of tensing or relaxing her fingers and face. How does the performer choose to push herself through this tremendously demanding form, and why? In African dance, as in ballet, we look for expertise of course, but what transforms the dancing is the dancer’s character. And we rejoice when we discover that character, see the spirit stripped of its body. Unfortunately, Medinah is a bit big to see everything, everyone; subtleties are lost. What stood out were the personalities and choices of the three artistic directors.

Ko-Thi’s Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker emphasizes the aural over the visual. Women in African troupes tend to be dancers more than musicians, yet Ko-Thi opens with several women playing drums (inspired by the Kikuyu female drummers of Kenya). Each has her own delicate, small instrument mounted on spidery stilts, and as they play they sing, sometimes in modal harmonies resembling those of the Bulgarian women’s choir Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. They do move, drawing their shoulders up and down and bouncing into little plies, but their movements merely highlight the beat and their breathing. The music is primary. The effect is not like men’s playing, which often has an astounding energy: this music is gentler, with a wavelike sense of ebb and flow.

Later, when the women of Ko-Thi dance, what we hear is almost more important than what we see: they tend to move bent over, as if obscuring the body; we hear the soft thuds of feet, the jingling of ankle bells, the women’s high, soft yips. Overall there’s an elusive, whispery quality to their dancing, a smallness and subtlety. The three male dancers, deploying big sticks in what looks like a dance preparing for battle, were somewhat disappointing, lacking the absolute decision so essential to strong male dancing. But Ko-Thi’s male drummers were magnificent, one in particular–a lanky fellow with a broad grin and expressive face who succeeded in bringing a back bend full circle, touching his head to the floor and drumming triumphantly throughout.

The African-American Dance Ensemble’s Chuck Davis, who also acted as griot (greeter and historian) for the concert, likes to showboat. His troupe performed Ake, a ritual celebrating the harvest, preceded by the dance of the Gboi: entirely covered in what look like sheaves of wheat, a man whirls, hunched over, resembling a mop without its handle. The ritual itself seems to offer soloists the opportunity to show their stuff–one after another all six dancers did their tricks. Isolations of the shoulders, head, and hips were common; and one man leapt up, landing in the splits. Later the same man, holding one foot in one hand, hopped over his own calf with his “standing” leg. Some of these tricks were impressive, but ultimately, like all mere athletic feats in dance, they failed to satisfy. Transitions from one sequence to another were minimal; ensemble feeling was minimal; and the drummers for the group were weak, lacking power, subtlety, and texture.

Drumming is just where Muntu shines. And that kind of magic, I’ve come to think, is essential to African dance. The playing has to be strong of course, but more than that it has to be varied. Muntu’s opening work, Drum Talk, features a long purely instrumental section in which its five drummers really take charge–lead us on a journey in which every bend in the road offers a new pleasure. Because Muntu’s drummers are such masters, each emerges complete, as musician and man.

Muntu’s artistic director, Amaniyea Payne, who dances with Muntu’s other five women and four men but is in no way featured, rides the wave of the music effortlessly. Or so it often appears–but that’s an illusion. Payne’s style (or perhaps more accurately, the African style she chooses to dance) is tremendously physical, the legs driving into the floor to achieve a perpetual bounding motion. Ironically, as a result of all this effort, the dancers look airborne, each in his or her own way. Payne’s way is serene, her face composed, almost carved in an expression of pleased concentration; from the waist up she’s often as still and gracious as a Victorian lady at tea.

Meanwhile that composure is belied by the furiously driving feet, and occasionally by the furiously flung arms. You have a strange sense, not that the energy comes from the music but that it is the music, flowing unfiltered through the dancers’ bodies. That sense is produced in part by the dancers’ quick and lively responses to the music’s breaks, its abrupt shifts in mood and rhythm. Because of these continual and escalating explosions of energy, and because each dancer handles them differently, Muntu’s unison dancing is never monotonous. The Ko-Thi performers sometimes dance in canon, which seemed to me at odds with the spirit of African dance–too choreographed, too Western. Muntu needn’t resort to any such device. They simply exploit the available variety, the richness; in their garden they grow only plants native to the soil, and that’s enough.

The organizers of “DanceAfrica/Chicago” expect it to be an annual event. So if you missed it this year, you can catch it the next. And you should catch it, because African dance supplies a charge like no other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jay Anderson.