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BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL

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A Virtual Travelogue of Powerful Performances from Southern and East Africa

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL

It's been a formidable task to keep up with all of the online content since March shifted the world as we knew it. Many renowned and remarkable dance companies, including some of the biggest names in New York City, responded to the challenge by unleashing their archives of celebrated past works. Many showcased the ephemeral medium of stage performances caught on camera before the advent of HD -- where every pore and bead of sweat is magnified. It was exhilarating at first but then became like everything else on the screen that so many of us are forced to stay glued to for far longer per day than is advisable. Watching even the greatest of companies began to feel like a chore.

However, the opportunity to engage with exhilarating new works from around the world is still a unique and worthwhile pleasure. Though we may cherish seeing a time-honored repertory piece from a favorite company in person, the virtual showing can leave one wanting. But to experience another culture's dance evolution without a passport or plane ticket (not that it's an option now anyway) can be an incredibly thrilling treat. That is where the 39th Annual Battery Dance Festival comes in as a salve for the travel-hungry dance aficionado who's been under Covid-19 enforced house arrest for months. True, the virtual form is missing the breathtaking backdrop of Battery Park, with Lady Liberty holding up her torch to the performers like a devoted fan. But the ability to access stunning works from Africa, India, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Indigenous North America, and celebrations of Black voices, women's right to vote, and the indomitable spirit of New York City, makes this one of the most exciting lineups of the festival's history.

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL
From Making Men by Dunia Dance Theatre. Photo ©AntoinePanier.

Even with all these gems available at one's fingertips for free (with a suggested donation to support the organization), screen fatigue is real. It is still asking a lot to commit to each program in the series. But the virtual travelogue to witness compelling works from East and South African companies based in Johannesburg, Kampala, and Harare is well worth the investment of time. And that time is running out because Battery Dance Festival From Africa -- with an introduction by Uzodinma Iweala, Chief Executive Officer of The Africa Center in New York City -- as well as the other series, ends online access on August 30th at midnight. Here are some highlights that are not to be missed.

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL
The award-winning Road choreographed and featuring Oscar Buthelezi for the South African company, Moving into Dance.

From Africa opens with Everlast, choreographed and performed by Eugene Mashiana, from the South African company Moving into Dance. The company was formed in 1978 by Sylvia Glasser as an artistic response to the destructive policy of separateness in the cruel turbulence of apartheid. From that impetus, the company presents two U.S. premieres from the company, including the second award-winning piece, Road. Everlast is a solo dance with a box in place of a partner that explores dehumanization of labor through the separation of product from the producer. It is as heart-wrenching as it is gripping. Road, choreographed by Oscar Buthelezi, features a duet of dancers (Buthelezi and Muzi Shili) who could be twins for their perfect alignment and mirror-image appearance. However, one is more volatile in his movements, while the other retains a calm demeanor until they both explode in a fury of expression. The work is about personal roads and journeys, and the experiences gained from those paths taken. The company defines their style as Afrofusion Dance. Visually, it is a blend of contemporary technique paired with rawness, emotion, and physical prowess where every single sinew tells a story.

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL
Abdul Kinyenya is a leading dancer, choreographer, educator, arts festival director, and spokesperson for the field of dance in Africa from Ugunda.

The U.S. premiere of TWETE (free ourselves) is created by Abdul Kinyenya of Uganda made in collaboration with Semaganda jeff/semah filmz, especially for Battery Dance TV. It received the most viewership of any solo presented across the virtual festival. Gliding barefoot across rough terrain, the dancer's gestures blend contemporary dance elements with street and more tribal African styles grounded firmly in the rocky landscape. Grey clouds loom above them, ominously, and a gentle stream becomes a prop to make a splash. The piece transports the viewer to the majesty and visual versatility of Uganda's natural world, making the on-location work feel much more visceral and vital than anything crafted for a stage. It's fierce, feral and fantastic!

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL
THINA ("WE") from Sedibeng, South Africa-based company Luthando Arts Academy .

Based in Sedibeng, South Africa, formerly known as the Vaal Triangle in Sebokeng, Luthando Arts Academy is similar to Battery Dance in its dual mission of educational outreach and artistic creation. In another U.S. premiere created by Phumlani Nyanga, THINA ("WE") portrays a young South African family interacting and growing together, while struggling to maintain harmony as siblings feud over money and inheritance. The performers begin in a huddled circle, sitting on the floor of a stage and rolling their heads in unison. They are all linked together, reinforcing the theme of a family bond. The lights expand from a single blue-tinged spotlight to reveal a two-person live band onstage. Suddenly the unity is broken, and a pair forms a stiff grasp on each other while the others continue to sway. Division begins. A clenched fist meets prying hands. Then the movements in the huddle become erratic -- like a seizure. These transitions make THINA ("WE") a provocative piece of dance theatre. The company's ability to move as one entity then shift into unexpected bursts of variant and individualistic styles is a compelling and intriguing method of physical storytelling.

But, to me, the company that utilized the medium of dance film in the most innovative, captivating way with striking visuals, narrative, and the stunning, rugged, site-specific landscape of Zimbabwe as the setting was Making Men by Dunia Dance Theatre. The Belgian/Zimbabwean merger seeks to remove the boundaries that separate artistic disciplines while incorporating African mythology and storytelling. The result is a mix of mediums, cultures, histories, expressions, and emotions that convey the diaspora experience's amalgamation. It is ultra-modern while paying tribute to the past and is a genuinely fresh take on dance possibilities in a digital format. Making Men traverses troublesome topics of homosexuality in the sometimes toxic masculinity of the continent's culture, where loving another of the same sex can be a crime punishable by death in some nations, and outdated ideas around traditional male roles and attitudes still prevail. The short work manages to blend social commentary, reflective memoir, erotic discovery, and tribal rituals all in one told through movement and arresting imagery. The piece is only a part of the From Africa series in the festival but could easily stand on its own.

BWW Review: 'FROM AFRICA' LEAPS ACROSS THE SCREEN at THE 39TH BATTERY DANCE FESTIVAL
From Making Men by Dunia Dance Theatre. Photo ©AntoinePanier.

All of these well-curated companies were planning to premiere their works live in the U.S. this year but shifted into other mediums of expression or utilized quality recordings of their dances to adapt to the present situation affecting the entire global arts industry. But regardless of if the performances were tailor-made to suit the situation or archives of staged shows, one takeaway is clear -- the continent of Africa is producing some of the most exciting and innovative dance worldwide while remaining true to their roots.

The 39th Battery Dance Festival From Africa is available to view online for free here. For more information about Battery Dance and Battery Dance TV, visit www.batterydance.org.


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