at the Medinah Temple

October 2-4

“I don’t know but I’ve been told, if you keep on dancin’ you’ll never get old.” That bit of down-home advice provided the title of a work performed during DanceAfrica/Chicago 1992; it also fit the spirit of the evening. It’s strange to review something like this concert–five American companies performing African dance in a festival now in its second incarnation, produced by the Dance Center of Columbia College–because it seems more a religious and cultural celebration than a paid performance, more revival meeting than commodity.

Watching the concert, seeing how crucial the principles of call and response were, I was struck by how much all the performers must be attuned to things outside themselves: the drummers to each other and to the dancers, the dancers to each other and to the drummers. Even the audience is called on to give back some of the energy it’s been given. Chuck Davis, artistic director of the African-American Dance Ensemble (who again acted as griot–master of ceremonies), has this routine I used to think was hokey but now seems essential: when he calls out “Ago!” (“Attention!”), which he does often, everyone is supposed to respond “Ame!” (“I’m listening” or “I’m open”). Early in the concert we’re told to “listen more to things than to beings”–things like the wind in the trees, for instance, the voices of our ancestors. But these natural things might just as easily be the physical facts of African dance and music, the footfalls and drumbeats and high-pitched singing, the chanting and handclaps.

Clapping games open the performance of the Alyo Children’s Dance Theatre (a training ground for Chicago’s Muntu Dance Theatre); the kids standing in clumps and chanting and jumping are kids everywhere, delighting in games of quick response, so quick as to seem simultaneous. Later, breaking into dance, they’re right on the beat in precise moves (based on traditional dances of Senegambia) that read clearly–though of course the occasional childish fudging of a movement is also charming. This was a terrific opening for the evening, with authoritative drumming from the Ene Drum Ensemble, two guys tottering around on stilts looking like giant scarecrows from The Wizard of Oz, and a whole stageful of children–more than 30 of them–in bright costumes. It made me want to laugh.

Chicago’s Najwa Dance Corps performed Klakan and Gio, each from a different Liberian culture. Klakan is a female initiation dance, and the costuming made it easy to distinguish the women from the girls. This is a confiding sort of dance, low to the ground; washing motions and huddled configurations express confidentiality and solidarity. Gio (“Breaking of the Bush”) is an initiation dance for men, and its character couldn’t be more different. The three men here made one kinetic boast after another, challenging each other to more and more daring feats. Their every move said “Look at me, I’m strong,” though every man was strong in a different way. Mwamba, performed by the African-American Dance Ensemble, means “soup” in the Lari language of the Congo, and at times the five dancers arranged in a circle did seem to be dashing toward the center to stir a pot.

When it came time for Urban Bush Women, I worried that they might not be able to fill the space, aurally and visually, the way the other, larger troupes had. I also knew that Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the artistic director, blends African and modern dance in her choreography, and that where African movements shout, modern dance whispers.

As usual, I worried for nothing. UBW’s seven women dancers and one male drummer filled the stage to overflowing in I Don’t Know but I’ve Been Told If You Keep On Dancin’ You’ll Never Get Old. The piece opens with the performers singing a cappella (about “liberation day”–“what a great day it must be when Africa is free”); near the end they grow softer, forcing us to listen harder. The song evolves into a gospel-style medley of overlapping lines, the drummer begins in earnest, and Zollar announces that this dance is dedicated to the cheerleaders, the drum majorettes, the tap dancers, the street dancers–to everybody who keeps the spirit of African dance alive. Grabbing a silver whistle hanging around her neck and giving several short blasts in a row, Zollar makes an instantaneous link between American halftimes and African music.

It was curious to see Urban Bush Women, in their streamlined versions of traditional garb, suddenly shift into unaccompanied modern dance: often the motions were African, but the manner of performance was entirely modern–slow, considered, the dancer obviously tuned into an inner rhythm. That made at least a portion of the audience uncomfortable; they tried to get the dance back on track at one point by whooping and clapping. But these quieter sections offered a break from, a comment on, the relentless extroversion of African dance; by shifting the mood they made the mood clearer. A different way of moving added texture, enhancing both the wildness of some UBW sections, the shaking booties and vibrating shoulders, and the more serene passion of others, like the gospel-style song of praise to the morning.

Muntu Dance Theatre performed Kakilambe, a dance from Guinea that tells the story of a woman possessed by an evil spirit and freed of that possession by a good one. The story is as clear as glass, the dance is filled with moments of humor and terror and tenderness, and the Muntu dancers gave it their characteristic all, with a precision and power I haven’t seen from any other African American troupe.

One of Kakilambe’s lessons concerns the dangers of isolation, of entrapment in the self: the evil spirit works alone and in secret, the young woman possessed is pointedly removed from and then restored to her community. In many ways African traditions–respect for authority, honoring the old ways, playing well-defined roles–are so oriented toward maintaining social order that they can seem almost kitschy: uncomfortably distant from the traditions of Western art, which at least for a few centuries has focused on the individual who stands outside the culture and criticizes it.

Yet in a country as racially divided as ours, an event like DanceAfrica makes a radical political and artistic statement. Optimism in the arts is crucial but tricky: it can’t consist merely of pasted-on grins or pasted-on anything. But African dance, so fundamentally energetic and outgoing, has optimism built into its very form, into its assumptions about communication. If I call, you’ll respond, the performers seem to say, inviting people of all colors to a party where things matter more than beings.

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