Dances of the Diaspora

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre,

May 10 and 11

One of the most gratifying aspects of folk dance–whether African, Eastern European, or Taiwanese–is the ability to unite people. It’s a subtle force, yet “Dances of the Diaspora,” Muntu Dance Theatre’s Spring Festival of Dance offering, shows that it works in deep, powerful ways. You could say that traditional African rhythms were the glue that kept Africans together in a society that tried to divide and break them. Slave owners understood the power of rhythm: they threatened to cut off the hands of anyone caught playing African drums. Slaves understood it as well: they held onto their rhythms, dancing clandestinely until they were free to dance as they pleased.

“Dances of the Diaspora”–a tightly woven tapestry of traditional African and African-American dances–celebrates the power of rhythm. Muntu’s warm, vibrant spirit is contagious in the opening number, Djon Dong Wolosodong, a traditional dance from Mali, West Africa, that pays homage to the ancestors while celebrating the life of a newborn. It begins softly, as one woman gently swings her hips back and bends toward the ground in a sign of reverence. Her hands sway openly before her as she sings a song of praise and thanksgiving. Slowly her happy song grows more lively. Men enter, then more women, and suddenly the stage is vibrating with movement and color. The group forms a circle, and each individual is allowed to dance solo in the middle–a custom as old as dance itself and as universal as the belly button.

Muntu’s artistic director, Amaniyea Payne, does an excellent job of transferring communal dances to the stage. It’s not an easy task, given that these dances were never intended to be raised above the ground and performed hundreds of feet away from spectators. But “Dances of the Diaspora” succeeds in a space like the Shubert because Muntu’s troupe of 17 company members, 8 special guests, and 7 dance apprentices embody the spirit of the dance so fiercely. At times that spirit is celebratory; at other times it’s reverent or even righteously indignant. Most important, it manifests indomitable African strength.

“Dances of the Diaspora” also offers a lively, entertaining lesson on the history of the African people. Payne makes a point of instructing, through program notes that explain the origin and purpose of each dance and also through the works themselves. Her African Swing celebrates the way African rhythms resurfaced in America, transformed into the Charleston, jitterbug, and other popular dances. This is a rich, theatrical piece, set in a nightclub during the Harlem Renaissance, complete with guest appearances by former lindy hopper Norma Miller, jazz vocalist Dee Alexander, and the One Family Band. There’s a bit of preaching, a lot of reminiscing, and some good, fun dancing–proof that even on another continent, music and dance continue to hold African culture together.

This concert primarily celebrates African history, but Payne also acknowledges the struggle. Thru Mandela’s Eyes is her tribute to South African president Nelson Mandela, and to those who fought to get him elected. It focuses not on the victory, but on the battle. In a sense, it’s a traditional war dance: meant to fortify, invigorate, and even anger.

Muntu’s more traditional dances charm through the sheer power of movement and rhythm. The Amathini/Can Dance is a sensual, lively rite of passage, with a dance by older women that instructs young girls in their roles and responsibilities, followed by an amazing dance in which the girls (from Muntu’s dance workshop) clang tin cans together over their heads and under their knees, moving so quickly the cans are almost invisible.

African dance is one of the most complicated folk idioms. Each part of the body often has its own rhythm to carry–the feet seem to go in one direction while the rib cage moves in another. Good African dancers can convey so many rhythms in their bodies it’s nearly impossible to catch them all. The Muntu dancers are all skilled, but in the spirit of African dance each also expresses her own style. In the Bantu language, “muntu” means “essence of humanity.” Perhaps this is the essence: to express your individual spirit while remaining part of a larger community–one that endures through generations and spans the globe.

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