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One Clear Rushing Stream

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MUNTU DANCE THEATRE

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

January 20, 21, 27, and 28

If you're not ready to jump out of your seat by the end of a Muntu Dance Theatre performance, you're either dead or terminally white. In fact it's hard to imagine the person who could sit back and relax: there you are, your butt unfortunately glued to your seat by all the conventions, maybe tapping your toes or bobbing your head a little, and wishing to God you too, could act out the beat that's shaking your bones. (That's one advantage of seeing a local African dance group--they're likely to be performing in a small space, the drummers nearly on top of you.)

Muntu is a long-lived Chicago group (it was formed in 1972) that specializes in traditional and contemporary African dance. That orientation means, in part, that the accompaniment is particularly compelling--as many as five drummers, who are usually onstage. But it may also bring a few dance aficionados up short: If it's traditional, can it be original or creative? If it's folk art, where's the fit with our culture? The correct response is: don't worry, be happy.

Muntu makes that easy. This is not dance for the brain to pick over--it's an experience that pours through you in one clear rushing stream. Part of the reason is that Muntu's brand of dance borders on the seamless. Dance and music are not clearly separate--the drummers dance with their hands, and the dancers make music with their feet and even with their costumes and props. The dances also blend into one another, often bridged by a drumming extravaganza that allows the dancers to catch their breath or change costumes, with no artificial breaks for the audience's applause. It's as if all the performers had entered into a pact never to let the ball drop.

For the opening dance, The Seruba, three drummers enter first, thumping madly as if directly on our hearts, one blowing a whistle that seems to shriek "Fire! Fire!" This is a West African dance of welcome and celebration, and just as the whistle embellishes the drummers' underlying, sustaining beat, so the white cloths the dancers flourish in their hands provide the accents to their thrumming feet and whirling arms. There's singing, too--a call and response that seems foreign less because of the African language than because of the women's high-pitched, nasal tones.

Most noticeable here are the consistently curved and stationary middles, the straight arms flung up and back in alternating circles like stylized wings. The dancers' bottom halves appear to be stable but are actually moving, their legs like springy pistons beating the floor--it's an illusion, but not at all a balletic illusion. Distance from the ground is unimportant, extension is unimportant; instead the body seems to be in two contradictory states at once.

In the next dance, Ekonkon, the women dancers perform a similar feat. You can see their hips moving slowly from side to side, but at the same time they must also be somehow twitching their hips double-time up and down or forward and back, because the rows of coins sewn to their skirts dance a brisk little jingling jig all their own.

The third work, Kakilambe, is a narrative dance divided into three scenes. In the first, a tall, rather gangly man (Abdoulaye Camara) enters wearing a wicked grin and lots of green, red, and yellow feathers. He carries a big bowl and a feather duster that he shakes in the air to release a cloud of magic powder, laughing maniacally. Somehow we know this guy's up to no good (a little boy in the row ahead of me said loudly "What's he gonna do?"). Two curious figures with spaceman heads enter carrying torches, and the mischief maker lights his two torches from theirs and proceeds to eat some fire.

In the next scene, three women are discussing an upcoming big party when suddenly the smallest of them (Amaniyea Payne), who is childishly sprawled on the ground, is seized by the mischief maker and his two assistants. They whirl and spin her over the floor until, in the final scene, they're chased away by Kakilambe, the God of Destiny (Nunulu Latham), an imposing figure in majestic red robes and a wild mane of dreadlocks.

It's too late, though. The young girl quivers and twitches on the floor, clearly possessed. She eventually rolls offstage, Kakilambe following, and the villagers try to dance her into a recovery. When she reenters with Kakilambe, she's upright but still not under her own control, dancing convulsively with eyes sightlessly raised. Kakilambe comes close to abusing her, throwing her about violently; the women dancers who surround them rock forward and backward, arms flung forward and back, in a slow, steady rhythm like deep breathing. All at once you see that the young woman has regained herself. She's collapsed on the floor but her face has come back to life, and Kakilambe, suddenly tender, cradles her cheek in his palm.

All of the first three dances were choreographed by Abdoulaye Camara. The fourth, Through Mandela's Eyes, was a premiere by Amaniyea Payne. Although of all the dances on the program it carried by far the heaviest intellectual burden, it seemed the most lightweight--almost a work in progress. It's much more Western than the other dances, a "tribute to the freedom fighters . . . in South Africa" that features blown-up news photos, a gunfire sound track, oral recitations, and what sounds from the program to be a very abstract, philosophical use of t'ai chi chuan. But I didn't understand how the movement was tied to the message. The strobe seemed gimmicky, and the message itself--"People of the world know that apartheid's wrong," in part--can be better communicated by other media. The energy level fell with a thud during this dance, the glum look on the face of the group's musical director, Enoch Williamson, as he recited his assigned poem seemed to say, "Give me back my drum."

The Musical Interlude and Djimbe Drum Salute that followed brought us back to Muntu's strengths. Here the focus was on the instruments: the flute with the player's breath in it like sobbing, the large gourd-shaped wooden thing that the player spanked as if it were a big headless, armless, legless baby. The drums, however frenzied they may have seemed, effected subtle shifts in tempo and emphasis that made them sound less like shouts than like carefully modulated voices. Senegal Oriental closed the program with a montage of dances, again by Abdoulaye Camara, that by the end had brought the audience to its feet.

This was not your typical dancing in a theater. For this kind of dance, it's not how it looks but how it feels, it's not the shape but the beat, and it's not a beat you hear but a beat you feel--one that rocks you from your sternum to the soles of your feet. Your head's involved only on the rebound.

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