MUNTU DANCE THEATRE
at ETA Creative Arts Foundation
May 28 through 31 and June 4 through 7
What registers first with the audience--and stays vividly in mind later--is the infectious vivacity with which the members of Muntu Dance Theatre perform. Their enthusiasm quickly becomes ours.
While these are all American dancers, they have studied the many African societies that created the dances to such an extent that they have made them their own. Their every movement shows that they know and respect the cultural and historical significance of each dance, yet they're never arrogant about their knowledge. Babu Atiba, one of the troupe's musicians and its assistant artistic director, described Muntu's philosophy: "We understand that there is merit in all cultures. We seek to appreciate the differences in order to amplify the similarities." That philosophy was apparent in the program Muntu recently presented at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, which also included an infectiously joyful recital by jazz singer Rita Warford.
To be an artist in Africa is to harmonize life and art--to sing, to drum, to dance is to live. And to instruct. During a musical interlude Atiba offered various proverbs: "Stupid friends are worse than enemies." And "Seek not to impress, but to express. For if you strip most people of material goods, behold an empty shell." He also made the audience repeat words and phrases, then added a little humor by pointing out that none of us had a clue about what we were parroting. He translated what we'd been saying, and the next time we shouted it out it was more meaningful and heartfelt.
The drummers play a large part in making the performance intense. They enter from the back of the theater or down the aisles through the audience, as in Djimbe Drum Talk, the opening dance on the program, and Wanna Mbenga. And they don't just drum in a line onstage, but take turns stepping in front of several first-row audience members and briefly drumming solo for one person. It's loud and exciting, and it makes you sit up straight in your seat as you try to figure out how someone can possibly drum so fast.
The ecstatic drumming sets the celebratory tone of Wanna Mbenga, a dance that originated with the Bambinga people of the northern region of the Congo and was choreographed by Biza Sompa. "Mbenga" is the name of a fish so big a whole village can feast on it, but that's difficult to catch because it can chew through fishing nets. In addition to celebrating having something to eat, this dance also celebrates good deeds, including catching such a large fish.
In the first part of Wanna Mbenga the dancers' arms are crossed in front of them at face level and their feet repeat a series of steps to the side and zigzag cross steps to the front, side, and back--all reminiscent of the crossed lines of a fishnet. The full hip rotations they add are unquestionably celebratory. The arms are then uncrossed and do small circular movements to the side and front that are gradually increased in speed, and the legs make big circling movements as the dancers hop. This combination of fast, sweeping motions is clearly joyous, but it also reminds you of the last spasms of a struggling fish.
Lamban--choreographed by Alyo Tolbert, Muntu's founder and artistic director until his death--starts sedately with small steps, but soon has the dancers throwing their arms up and out and their legs out and back in huge sweeping arcs as wide as the oversize robes they wear. The robes are an integral feature of the dance, almost another choreographed body part. For example, they become winglike when the dancers' arms are extended outward (though there's nothing angelic about this dance, which has at all times an earthy, weighty feel to it). And when the dancers turn with their arms out, dancer and robe become a giant whirl.
The dancers maintain a basic rhythmic unison step in the background, while each steps out in turn for a solo. They also sing while they move. This dance--which originated in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal--is a griot dance, an oral history in praise of one's ancestors. The only name I recognized was Harold Washington's, but the simple inclusion of his name changed the dance from a historical curiosity into something current and relevant--Chicago temporarily became a small part of Africa.
Doudoumba/Soli, the final dance sequence from Guinea, West Africa, starts at an incredibly fast pace. The women, in cowrie-encrusted costumes, flail their arms wildly. When they exit, the men enter with axes held high, glowering at the audience as they step and jump, showing off their "warrior" prowess. They tumble and rise from the floor in time to the music, still scowling. Then they leave, and the women reenter briefly with pom-pom-like objects, which they shake, hold up, and touch to the ground. The men return without their weapons, and the dance becomes much more joyous. The man in the center holds his hands out wide to either side of him, and the openness of his movements is repeated by the others. Instead of warily looking out at the audience, they're absorbed in their own dancing, looking down at their hands or at each other. No longer warriors on guard, they can relax and forget about the enemy--and the audience. Again, they leave. Then both men and women return, and the dance, which in Guinea can last for hours, takes over.