Friday evening kicked off a weekend of events that honored African music and dance, and African diaspora. Presented by The Legacy Arts Project and the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Dance Africa returned to Pittsburgh for its fourth year.
Founder of Dance Africa, Dr. “Baba” Chuck Davis, started the show with a tribute to the “elders” in the audience. Davis asked those over 55 to stand, as a way to honor the life experience and knowledge they possess.
At that moment, a single drumbeat from behind the curtain began the official performance. Dancers, musicians and community members proceeded down the aisle and onto the stage singing traditional songs, sometimes in a call-and-response fashion with the audience.
With a theme of “healing,” there was a therapeutic feel from the beginning. As the group processed off stage, local dancer, Anthony Williams, walked on. A list of names was read as Williams moved, acknowledging prominent blacks who have kept African art and culture alive in this country. Williams used slow, deliberate movements that gave him a regal look, leaping and turning with clarity and grace.
Act One featured the Balafon West African Dance Ensemble of Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (including their youth group), and Legacy Arts of Pittsburgh. “Foko” opened the show with ten kids playing infectious and intricate rhythms on the djembe drums lining the stage. Their music and intermittent movement had passion and precision.
The second piece, “OYA,” was dedicated to the women of African diaspora. Six women joined the youth in movement alternating between slow undulations through the spine and arms to fast-paced and rhythmic foot patterns. Similarly, “The Forest” celebrated the coming of age for women, and utilized both children and adults. The dancers’ energy was contagious; the audience cheered and clapped throughout.
The first half concluded with an interlude from the drummers that led into a high-energy section of dance. The movement began with cartwheels and somersaults from two young girls, and ended with ten women performing individual solos that highlighted their skills. Most impressive was the stamina and athleticism required to get through the section, and the performers’ ability to maintain their energy with absolute joy.
Act Two featured the Kulu Mele Dance and Drum ensemble from Philadelphia. “Yemaya,” their first work, was based on the goddess of the living ocean who is said to cure infertility in women. The performers wore dresses of blue and white to mimic the waves of the ocean. As it is at sea, there wasn’t a true moment of stillness in the piece. The movement was circular and hypnotic, and the dancers rippled across the stage as if entranced by the power of the goddess.
“Ogun” was inspired by the divine warrior of the same name who is believed to make the planet a better place. The trio of men were clad in bright green, and carried swords in a show of tenacity. Each of the dancers maintained a fluidity in their strength, power and dexterity.
The show crescendoed into a series of shorter works. “N’gri” featured three women in complex rhythms and exciting jumps inspired by a gazelle. “Soboninkun” was a short solo piece with the dancer masked and costumed as an antelope. The dance itself is traditionally performed following a harvest.
“Manjani” is a dance to traditionally “test the skills of the dancers” and was performed by three women who exhibited community more than competition. Another trio, “Hip-Hop to African Rhythms,” fused old and new styles. The men took turns showing off their best moves, competing in good humor with big jumps and gymnastic handstands.
The last piece, “Fula Fare,” brought the men and women together in a dynamic group section that celebrated the Fula people of Guinea. The work demonstrated the spirited nature of African dance, a community feeling sometimes lacking in modern day arts.
Erin Perry, Executive Director of Dance Africa, said in her program note, “We can all attest to the necessity for more healing energy worldwide…Such is the work that we are called to do, to utilize our gifts and share them for the betterment of humanity.” The unique program worked to uplift us and remind us of our oneness.