at the Medinah Temple, October 8-10

Conversation without speaking is an ideal that’s perhaps realizable only in dance. What’s called “body language”–catching and sending little clues amid a welter of talk–isn’t the same at all. No, I mean a way of communicating so direct, complete, and passionate that all that can be said is said in rhythm and energy. What I like about African dance is how often it comes up to that ideal, the dancers speaking in the clearest possible terms to the drummers and to us.

But dance on a concert stage has to be structured to make theatrical sense, a concern separate from but sometimes related to such magic. And for some reason at DanceAfrica/Chicago 1993, sponsored again by the Dance Center of Columbia College, I kept thinking about whether things made sense theatrically or not. For one thing, novelty is a theatrical virtue, and the lineup here was completely new: none of the four companies had appeared in the two previous DanceAfricas. It was also obvious that efforts had been made to shorten the show, partly by trimming some of the onstage ceremony: brevity’s another virtue, maybe especially in light of last year’s event, which lasted a good three hours and genuinely tried the audience’s stamina.

S.P.I.R.I.T.S., a Chicago group, has a built-in theatricality: it relies on costumes and props, masks and heavy makeup, for much of its effect. Never Ending begins eerily with throaty blasts on a horn, animal sounds, bells, and a figure whirling in the half dark. One by one mysterious beings enter: a tiny person, his face and body shining with heavy white bars of makeup, who does back flips all the way across the stage; a man in glittery top hat with face half dark, half white; several people on stilts; a bird or crocodile shaggy with hair or feathers; a whirling broom; an acrobat; a guy on even taller stilts; and finally an enigmatic central figure, a hairy mound with a tiny goat mask on one side of its head and a heavy-lidded human mask on the other. Each figure was striking in itself, but as a whole Never Ending didn’t go anywhere. If there was a narrative I couldn’t tell what it was (and the section titles in the program didn’t help), and the piece didn’t really build: essentially we saw a list of characters, one spectacular figure after another coming onstage and doing tricks, then standing aside.

Memory of African Culture, from Washington, D.C., paid greater attention to choreography and to variety: they opened with an unusual musical number using unfamiliar stringed and xylophonelike instruments. The dance they performed–Tombolo, described as a get-together–was high-spirited and celebratory, challenging the men, for instance, to step faster and faster to quickening beats of the drums. But the floor patterns didn’t always serve the dancing: they tended to be militaristic, almost marching patterns, or spread the dancers out too evenly across the floor, diffusing the focus. And the dancers were a little ragged on the breaks sometimes, anticipating the drummers’ changes. Still, on occasion the dance took fire, as when a small dancer did a solo, lifting her legs with breathtaking sharpness and precision, then driving them into the floor, talking to the drummers and to us. She had the kind of spidery body that folds up easily–but the magic didn’t come from what she had, it came from what she did.

Of these groups ODADAA!, also based in Washington, D.C., seemed most representative of contemporary African culture, its members (described in the program as “musicians and dancers from Ghana”) recent immigrants rather than sixth- or seventh-generation Americans. A male-female vocal duet, part of the musical interlude opening their segment, had an eerie pop quality and almost Western harmonies, yet the dance on this program was sufficiently embedded in Muslim African culture to be a bit baffling to Americans: essentially Bambaya is a female impersonation by three male dancers who carry fans and wear shiny purple tops with floaty cap sleeves and “skirts” made of giant pom-poms. In African dance sex roles are usually very well defined, so it was odd to see men twisting their torsos and flipping up their skirts, front and back, to seduce the drummers. This was a one-trick pony, but we had no idea why the men were impersonating women (saying in a program note that the dance is done “in celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad” doesn’t really help). And though the dancers become slightly more outrageous as the dance goes along, their movements remain much the same throughout.

But the final group on the program, Sabar Ak Ru Afriq of New York, clearly takes good care of its audiences. (Another rule of theater: save the best for last.) The relatively small percussion ensemble produces a hugely varied sound, perhaps thanks to the arrangements by Obara Wali Rahman-Ndiaye, and the choreography, by Andara Koumba Rahman-Ndiaye, is well planned, creating exciting shifts in energy and rhythm, as when the dancers come to a dead halt and the music continues.

The piece performed on the program I saw, Oulimata Djamba Diop, requires incredible strength in the hips and thighs: the signature movement is a popping of the legs from turned-in to turned-out position. With the dance’s flung arms and intricate hand motions–fillips on the gestures–the effect is of limbs whirling in a hurricane of motion around a still center created by the dancer’s determination and control. Rahman-Ndiaye is a master of this kind of movement, and she often places herself center stage or gives herself long solos.

But the audience never went wild for her the way they did for a heavyset woman whose triumphs over gravity were purely magnificent, whose rhythms fed on the drummers’ and gave them back. In the end the most thorough planning, the best theatrical sense, can’t anticipate or produce that kind of energy, that ecstatic form of communication; at best it merely frames it, allows for it. And so we waited, settling for entertainment–which this DanceAfrica certainly provided–and hoping for transcendence, which came only in flashes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jerry Vezuzo, Rapheal Robles-Ortiz.