Dallas — Dallas Black Dance Theater brought the 38th annual DanceAfrica festivities, created by Dr. Charles Davis (Baba Chuck), to the Montgomery Arts Theater of Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts last weekend.
The performance once again featured the local Bandan Koro African Drum and Dance Ensemble, directed by Tony Browne. Dancers from DBDT, DBDT II, BTWHSPVA and the Dallas Black Dance Academy presented a plethora of styles from the African continent. Drummers Robert Beasley, Leo Hassan, Najee Lee, Christopher Rollins, and Jordan Walker provided most of the music for the evening. The creators of this year’s performance proved that the best way to guide the audience into this world of African celebration is with a creatively, if unconventionally, set space.
As the audience entered the theater, harsh work lights greeted the patrons instead of usual inviting warmth. The stage was completely bare, absent of any curtains and cyclorama. A first-time observer might have thought that since the performance centers around a community event, there’s no need for a formal theatrical setting. Ominous music played before anything happens, opening the show in mystery. It’s as if one is going about the business of real life, but something is off. What happened next began a slow transition from reality to a luminous dream-like world.
A lone figure descended the steps of the theater seating, covered in head to toe with a straw dress and headpiece. No face was visible, and the show began. As the performer ascended the bare stage, four other figures entered donning similarly concealing costumes made of strips of vibrantly patterned fabric. Based on the Egungun traditions of Nigeria, in which the performer embodied the ancestors during the ritual, the dancers spun and moved to a specific rhythm played by each of the four drummers.
As the energy built with each performer dancing to a specific rhythm, curtains descended to form wings, the cyc came in and lights shifted to create the scene on stage. The transition to another world was complete, and by recognizing the authority of the past, this celebration of African culture and the cycles of life began.
In honor of those who came before and those whom have moved on, Council of Elders entered the stage dressed in white and performed a short dance. Joining them were the members of the Junior Performance Ensemble of the DBDA in a candle-lit ceremony of remembrance.
Baba Chuck himself then graced the stage, and with his warm presence and impressive stature, he welcomed all to the event. He entreated the audience to join in the celebration with a call-and-response. “AGO!” he bellowed, meaning “May I have your attention?” to which we reply, “AME!”—“I am listening.”
After another Council dance, the ladies of DBDT showed their respect to the women, and then danced their own segment. To welcome the community, students from DBDA performed two Lamban dances from the old Mali empire. The gold-clad Allegro Performing Ensemble (directed by Katricia Eaglin) stormed to choreography by Baba Chuck. Following them were the ladies of the Senior Performing Ensemble (directed by Michelle Hebert). Dancing to choreography by Michelle N. Gibson, the dancers created an incredible visual with their billowing white tops. Both ensembles impressed and excited with their youthful energy and passionate movements.
The BTWHSPVA World Dance Ensemble (directed by Michelle Zada Hall and Kate Walker) skipped, skimmed and shook across the stage with a Lalaba “fishing” dance choreographed by Moussa Diabate. The dance was quite varied and somewhat long, but definitely not boring. The stamina required and the dancers’ exuberance provided a thrilling and extraordinary end to the first part of the show.
DBDT II brought a more modern touch to the party with the Isicathulo, or “gumboot” dance of South Africa. Created by miners in Johannesburg, the dance utilizes the sounds created by the wellington work boots of the workers, in addition to clapping and other percussive sounds made by the body. Dressed in white overalls and yellow mining hats, the dancers beat out impressive rhythms, moving in the style similar to today’s stepping.
The members of Bandan Koro brought down the house with their West African music and dance and provided a visual feast with their percussion set-up, costumes, and of course, vibrant dancing. Such variety and complexity existed in the music and choreography; it added a unique artistic touch to this cultural form while maintaining the communal aspect.
The occasion concluded with a grand dancing finale featuring all dancers, and a lovely poetic finish from Baba Chuck, who is stepping down as artistic director next year.