It makes a village

Tribal rhythms intersect with social justice.

I went to the theater last Friday night with Lodi. And with Jean, Carol, Carl, and a couple other women whose names I didn't catch. Since Africans never dance for strangers, according to Northwest Afrikan American Ballet director Bruce Smith, he asks that you introduce yourself to seven people around you before the concert starts, making the audience into a village for the evening.

Northwest Afrikan American Ballet

Paramount, June 4

The dances of NAAB are derived from village life, which gives them both movement material and a context to put it in, but also poses some distinct challenges. By taking this work from its social setting and transplanting it to a theatrical environment, Smith has had to make adjustments throughout the program, from floor plans to timing. It's appropriate that the company refers to itself as a ballet—what we see is African dance filtered through the lens of Western theatrical structures.

Those caveats aside, this is an enormously likable company. The heart of African dancing is the relationship between the movement and the music, particularly its rhythm, and NAAB is very wealthy in that regard. Smith, who drums and dances, is obviously the leader, but he has surrounded himself with a collection of excellent performers. Musicians Israel Annoh, Caton Lyles, and David Parks, along with Smith, set up a matrix of complex polyrhythms that are reflected and amplified by the dancers. These people can maintain three or four separate rhythms in their bodies simultaneously, making the rest of us look like we can't walk while we chew gum.

The program mixed narrative works with more abstract dance suites. Rites of Passage, a coming-of-age story, had a few awkward combinations of traditional settings and contemporary movement quotations (one too many high-fives), but it offered a chance for the company's men to shine in powerful variations. Triba and Sofa, drawn from the dance styles of Guinea, weathered the translation process much better, and could serve as a glossary for West African dance. The torso leans forward and the knees lift high; feet rebound off the floor while spines swing like whips, the heads marking the end of the arc. Even the hair is flying, making a nimbus around the head. The hands trace complex, looping patterns, just as arms are flung up and out. As the movement becomes faster, the focus sometimes turns inwards, as if the performer is in a state of trance.

Arguably the most distinctive work on the program was South African Boot Dance, which is drawn from the daily tasks of diamond mine workers and is dedicated to African miners. Smith and his assistant choreographer Michelle Burch make good use of the heavy boots worn in the mines, creating a kind of soft-shoe/body-music hybrid with clapping and slapping. Wearing dun-colored overalls and helmets with miners' lights, the dancers evoke mixed feelings. The close coordination of the work is reminiscent of both a chorus line and a chain gang—the grim nature of the source material acts as a counterpoint to its engaging rhythmic structure.

Smith's village metaphor served to highlight family resemblances among dance styles. Western cultures have constantly borrowed from African dance material—not just the exuberant athleticism of break dancing and hip-hop, but the flying arms and wobbling legs of the Charleston as well as others. Lighter moments in the South African work reflect a link to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other township choral groups, which in their turn remind us of the smooth choreography Cholly Atkins created for several Motown artists. And in the meantime, the marching rhythms of the piece are related to African-American stepping performances.

The members of the Northwest Afrikan American Ballet performed with great exuberance, and their village for the evening responded in kind, with clapping, whistling, and ululation. The challenge for a company that is bringing social dances into the theater is to keep the group dancing with each other while they are performing for the audience. By the time we got to an extended encore, NAAB had managed to erase the distinction between doers and watchers and solve this dilemma. At the end we were, however briefly, all part of one community.

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