at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 24-25, December 1-2

I was rather surprised that Muntu Dance Theatre’s concert–called “Living Legends”–was not part of the Dance Center’s series, “Present Vision/Past Voice: The African-American Tradition in Modern Dance.” But strictly speaking, Muntu is not a modern-dance troupe. Although it presents some contemporary works, its dance technique doesn’t quite fit into any of the modern-dance vocabularies, nor does its choreography. Muntu’s very considerable artistic contributions lie in its carefully researched, joyous presentation of traditional and contemporary folkloric arts of various African cultures.

In that broad area, Muntu is unique. Its mission is to build awareness of and pride in the age-old and ongoing history of African traditions and achievements. Although its dances stress authentic movement, body language, music, and costume, these are presented theatrically–they’re professionally arranged to appeal to the broadest public.

The program opened with a dignified ritual, in which an elder pours the precious libation–water–into a bowl while incanting a prayer for peace and prosperity for all. Muntu’s spectacular drummers then took over the stage. Their remarkably rich rhythmic and tonal–even melodic–variations on African drums, securely held between their legs, were soul-stirring no matter what the listener’s racial or ethnic background. Fanga followed, a charming, lighthearted Liberian dance taught to Muntu by Pearl Primus, the noted dancer and choreographer. In the dancers’ swift feet, propelled by torsos bent forward and rotating hips, one could see what had inspired popular American dances like the jitterbug.

A stunning, throbbing Drum Ritual then took over the stage. Actually the drums were the most exciting elements in the concert. Their propulsive, driving beats roused every live body in the audience. Another African dance–Doudoumba/Soli–gave the male dancers an opportunity to show off their athletic virtuosity. Sounou is a wedding dance in which the veiled bride does little but sit until she’s escorted offstage. The other members of the cast celebrate for her.

Through Mandela’s Eyes is dedicated to Nelson Mandela, as well as to other martyrs in the struggle for freedom. It’s a sincerely felt, political, dramatic dance–agitprop, intended to stir hearts and minds. Amaniyea Payne read “It Takes a Heart,” a poem, while the dancing cast mimed a confusing piece in which it’s unclear whether the fighters are guerrillas or the South African military enemy. Dee Alexander recited “There Must Be Some Answers.”

But despite its very serious and important message, Through Mandela’s Eyes never has the desired powerful impact. It may be that the subject is just too large to be encompassed in dance. The Alvin Ailey work dedicated to Mandela also fails, perhaps for the same reason.

The program concluded with African Swing. This very lively nightclub scene features Alexander, who’s a beautiful woman and a terrific singer, a great group of jazz musicians, and some wonderful jitterbugging versions of the lindy and other popular dances that too few of us who have enjoyed them can trace to their African sources.