BWW Dance Review: DANCEAFRICA SENEGAL Program Brings Color and Poignancy to BAM
DanceAfrica is now a 39-year program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, bringing varied African cultures to the stage in a short annual festival. This year's opening night of SENEGAL: DOORS OF ANCIENT FUTURES was held at the Howard Gilman Opera House on Friday, May 27, 2016.
The performance was inspired by Baba Abdel R. Salaam's visits to Senegal. Salaam, who is the new Artistic Director of DanceAfrica, wanted to bring together his first experience of the country in 1978 with his recent visit in 2015.
He introduced the evening, along with DanceAfrica founder and former Artistic Director, Baba Chuck Davis. Scholarships were awarded as well, including the first Baba Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Award. The winner, Kwame Opare, a veteran of the Off-Broadway cast of STOMP, will be sent to Africa to work with the National Ballet of Ghana.
Before the dancers and musicians took over the stage, Davis instructed each audience member to hug at least seven others around them. He then explained the custom of "dashing," in which audience members come to the stage and place money (bills) in a basket for the performers.
One of the things I love most about African dance is that it tends to be less a performance than a celebration. This particular evening, the dance was quite diverse with a combination of contemporary modern dance and traditional, explosive African movement. It was obvious most of the dancers have had serious ballet training. The music was equally diverse, changing from recorded music to live drummers and singers.
When the curtain rose for the first piece, "Spirit Walkers", choreographed by Salaam with music by William "Billy" Bungo, we saw a stunning circular tent spotlighted in the center of the stage. At the top was a white mask, and its sides were made of earth-toned fringe. As the names of famous African figures were chanted, the upper bodies of dancers began to emerge through the fringe. The effect was mystical. Meant to honor the ancestors and elders of the DanceAfrica community, the first part of the piece was quite balletic.
The second portion included more of the types of percussive movement we associate with West African dance, as more dancers and the elders of the DanceAfrica community paraded down the aisles of the theater, all dressed in beautiful white costumes.
The rest of the first act was filled out by "Village Fisherman's Dance" and "Koukou" by Les Ballets de la Renaissance Africaine or "Waato Siita" choreographed by Moussa Sonko; "Who Are We?" by Marie Agnes Gomis; and "Ballante" also by Sonko. These included both lyrical pieces and thrilling, fast dances. A young boy, who interacted with the various dancers, singers, and drummers, was a character throughout.
In one exciting section, dancers in metallic costumes with a snake-like pattern and fringed skirts filled the stage. The rapid kicks, turns, and swinging arms looked nearly impossible to accomplish. Yet, the dancers managed to execute these feats in unison.
Another piece involved large plastic bottles set in various places upon the stage. The dancers used them as props and percussion instruments as they hit the bottles against their bodies. It was a commentary on pollution and, specifically, the dangers of plastic to the natural world.
In the second act, the program started with "A Question of Beauty," choreographed by Salaam. The program notes say the piece "portrays a young African woman's struggle with ideals of beauty, cultural identity, and self-awareness as she is ultimately empowered by the Elementals." In this contemplative number, a woman with her back turned to the audience was illuminated by a single spotlight and danced on her knees, using her arms to express herself as a voice repeated the word "beauty" in a whisper. Eventually, she put on a blonde wig. Then, the other dancers arrived as Elementals to help her come to terms with her own natural beauty. At one point, they were surrounded by dry ice and lighting made to look like lightning strikes.
Next, "Sabar Traditionnel" and "Sabar Urbain" by Sonko brought us the traditional form of Sabar, which has been a celebrated form of dance and rhythm in Senegal for 50 years. These were performed by dancers who also sometimes sang, while expert drummers showed off their skills. In these pieces, the dancers wore bright red and yellow, followed by white costumes with green trim.
Each dancer came to the center to show off his or her best moves. The result was an electrifying finale that had everyone in the audience cheering loudly in response.
Other companies joining the evening were BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble and Compagnie Tenane. DanceAfrica's program continues through Monday, May 30.
Photo Credit: Richard Termine