Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway

By: Aug. 29, 2018
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Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway

BWW Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with Botswana on Broadway

While The Lion King -- the highest grossing Broadway show of all time -- was playing at the Minskoff Theatre, the most authentic African experience playing onstage in New York City was next door in the unlikely atmosphere of the Playstation Theater (normally a concert venue). PULA! Botswana on Broadway presented by Battery Dance and sponsored by the Botswana Tourism Organization is an evening of explosive energy of the most authentic African movement, music, and emotional storytelling with universal themes that is an exhilarating experience that everyone can enjoy!

PULA! Botswana on Broadway was appropriately billed as a "dance theatre musical." The jam-packed if not completely sold-out audience of all ages were greeted with thunderous, pulsating percussion that ushered in the extraordinarily talented ensemble of male and female dancers whose exuberant joy and exceptional skill seemed to defy the limits of human capability. In traditional costumes, they shimmied, stomped, lept and twirled around the stage in a massive opening number that made the viewers dizzy with glee. All the while, the enchanting voices of the lead singers (Pesalema Eutricia Motshodi and Star Naledi Phalane -- as clear and resonant as any Broadway stars), peppered with the chants and calls of the dance corps, lifted the emotion of the moment to even more elevated heights. These nearly inhuman feats of athleticism and artistry were all performed with a thousand-watt smile from each member of Botswana on Broadway. When all was said and done the performers were glistening with sweat, their chests heaving to catch their breath -- as was the audience! This was only the very first number, but it set the tone for the entire entrancing evening of entertainment that transports the viewer to a bustling African community with all the richness of their culture.

As the Narrator (Gofaone Gabriel Modise) noted: "Culture is a way of connecting and bringing together all people", so PULA! Botswana on Broadway has the power to inspire, uplift, and unite. It is hardly a surprise that it is sponsored, co-created, and produced by Botswana Tourism Organization as it is certainly a love letter to the best of Botswana and a real incentive to visit this vibrant place. The I Love Botswana Ensemble was created by Tourism Organization as well as Mophato Dance Theatre under the direction of Andrew Letso Kola originally for the ITB (International Travel Borse -- the largest travel show in the world) in Berlin 2017. The show is a collaboration of an assortment of seven of the best modern and traditional performing arts groups in Botswana united to "tell cultural stories of humanity and earth through the ever enigmatic Botswana lens." If only this were a requirement of every country! Fortunately, Battery Dance, one of America's leading cultural ambassadors, found a way to bring this phenomenal experience of a specific culture with a universal message to New York audiences.

After the energetically eruptive introduction, the stage was set and the story unfolded. The Narrator explained: "Our culture is not complete without the rain." ("Pula" is one of many words for rain). In the semi-arid African country, rain is the creator and destroyer, the provider of abundance or harsh, cruel denier of basic needs. The story takes place in a humble village, where daily life consists of the usual working of the land, honoring traditions while bending to modern ways and, of course, gossiping. The Chief (Aphons Koontse) leads the villagers in a peaceful and pleasant community but the Rainmaker (Ntirelang Berman) is the most revered member of this society. A marvelous celebration takes place when the Rainmaker's Daughter "Mmapula" (the astoundingly talented and emotionally complex Lone Thabang Motsomi) marries the fiercest and bravest young man from the Initiation School (Kalima Taza Mipata) -- where youths are taught the traditional ways -- resulting in a celebration of epic proportions. Sadly, the couple's joy can hardly be commenced because of an oppressive drought that consumes the village. When the Chief petitions the Rainmaker for help, the bones foretell the prophecy -- the only saving grace lies in the next generation, his daughter. Thus Mmapula goes through a painful transformation process and embarks on a "Hero's Journey" worthy of Joseph Campbell's books, to meet with other tribal elders and witness the truth of the unpredictable nature of the land of Botswana, claiming her power and finally bringing the soothing and life-sustaining waters to the parched country.

It is remarkable and progressive that the main protagonist should be a woman. Perhaps partial credit for that is due to the native Californian (now Bamangwato royalty) female scriptwriter and patron, Thea Khama. But this show is, if anything, full of many pleasant surprises. Tradition is honored, but so are modern ways of thinking and being. Culture is preserved but also shared and Western elements, integrated, only proving how much this world can be one if we will only see what unites instead of divides us all.

PULA! Botswana on Broadway works on so many levels and none of its transformative power could be felt without a single element or ensemble member missing, but it is likely that a supreme amount of credit is due to the show's Artistic Director and choreographer, Andrew Letso Kola. His extensive personal training would be enough to support the depth and variation of the dance and performance styles and high standards, but his many achievements and successes prove that this may only be the beginning of the global recognition of his profound talent and good taste.

As a regular reviewer, current producer, and former dancer myself, it is hard to be impressed and even more rare to be "Wowed." However, the dancers of PULA! Botswana on Broadway did that and more. They were all connected so deeply with heaven and earth at the same time that it seemed near impossible. Grounded movements would transform into gravity-defying leaps; mesmerizing, sensual hip twists and twirls of the women would give way to the contrasting sharp gestures of the men, and a knock-kneed style, unique to traditional African dance, that is nearly indescribable but completely transfixing to watch. The most hypnotizing example came from one particular dancer -- Dimpho Powe -- whose long, lean physique appeared to be pulled vertically by divine intervention and his Gumby-like gestures, almost superhuman, proved the capability of the human body when stretched (pun intended) to its limits. Seeing this company, one can better understand and appreciate the origins of hip hop dance and the "crunk", "krump" and "flex" styles of expression most typically found in and born out of modern, urban African American societies.

When the new female Rainmaker finally unleashed the skies, the celebration was epic! The final half hour of this nonstop show is an Olympic-level showcase of talent and athleticism that makes one question the limitlessness of what the human body is capable of. After the relentless demonstration of their strength and beauty, power and prowess they all still have smiles on their faces. Maybe we should all take a cue from Botswana.

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
PULA! Botswana on Broadway is pure joy!

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
Lead Male Dancer "Kabo" performed with remarkable strength and skill by Kalima Taza Mipata.

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
"The Rainmaker" (Ntirelang Berman) pleads for rain to quench the village's drought.

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
The powerful male ensemble of PULA! Botswana on Broadway (Dimpho Powe, center).

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
"Mmapula" (Lone Thabang Motsomi) the Rainmaker's daughter, transforms into the new Rainmaker.

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
Mmapula, the new Rainmaker, takes the hero's journey across Botswana to find the key to bring the rains to the parched land.

Review: The Authentic African Experience Explodes Onstage with PULA! Botswana on Broadway
Lone Thabang Motsomi brought equal parts emotional complexity and extraordinary athleticism to the role of "Mmapula" the Rainmaker's daughter who restores rain and balance to the village, resulting in an exuberant celebration and finale.