Sunday, May 27, 2018

My DanceAfrica wish list

Abdel R. Salaam, Artistic Director
of BAM's annual DanceAfrica fest,
presents Remembrance, Reconciliation, Renewal,
honoring the centennial of Nelson Mandela's birth
and the work of "freedom fighters past and present."
The season focuses on South Africa's
traditional and contemporary dance.
Below: Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre, founded in 1995,
under the leadership of artistic director Jay Pather
and resident choreographer Simphiwe Magazi

He said it himself. Several times. It's hard to choose.

Why do we have to?

Abdel R. Salaam--Chuck Davis's successor as artistic director of DanceAfrica--went to South Africa and fell in love. He auditioned several dozen dance troupes, knowing he could select only one for his festival. One. At most, two. He watched and watched. And enjoyed. And agonized.

Then he chose one (Durban's Siwela Sonke Dance Theatre). And then he combined a large number of dancers from four different companies into a supergroup, what became Ingoma KwaZulu-Natal Dance Company, made up of performers from:
Champions Dance Crew, which specializes in isipantsula, an energetic street style of movement that first emerged during the apartheid era; Kangaroo, a traditional Zulu ensemble based in Durban; the all-female Tswana Group, trained in Setswana, Pedi, Venda, and Xhosa styles; and Amatsheketshe, another all-female troupe that specializes in the traditional Zulu styles of Ushiyameni, Umkhomaas, and Umzani. -- from DanceAfrica 2018 publicity
And with thoughts of Mandela's birth centennial and mindful of continued struggles both there and here in his own homeland, Salaam began to create a way to introduce a range of South African artistry to his loving and loyal DanceAfrica audience for the 2018 season.

The head swims to think of Salaam's responsibility. And to think the next thought--which is that, since Baba Chuck gave Salaam his wholehearted blessing, telling him to make DanceAfrica his own, it might be time to do exactly that. What's the next level for this annual tradition at BAM--one which, given Brooklyn's struggles around gentrification and cultural displacement--is more significant than ever?

While Salaam is meticulous about thanking DanceAfrica supporters like Bloomberg and ConEd from the stage, I'm going to throw out a challenge to BAM and to funders to help DanceAfrica do more than entertain. It's time to make it an institution that thoroughly illuminates and educates year-round, not just for a single holiday weekend.

DanceAfrica 2018, which continues today and tomorrow, is entertaining and rousing as all get out, designed to be so, with everything from thrilling movement and acrobatics to breathtaking stage design. You can't beat it for that. Salaam inherited a jewel and, wonderfully, brings his own broad interests to it.

I can say that I saw much--and it was quite a range, stylistically, all presented with painstaking skill and openhearted verve--but I can't say much about what it all meant. I can't distinguish between the styles noted in the above description of Ingoma's component groups. I have a woefully imperfect understanding of the theatrical narrative presented in Siwela Sonke's Umsuka (choreographed by Neli Rushualang), despite what's written in the program notes' one-sentence description. And--like Salaam in his way--I want more.

I'd like Salaam to have the opportunity and the wherewithal to break DanceAfrica out of its box and build it further. Why, after four decades, is it not yet an institution that can bring companies--from traditional to hip hop and beyond--throughout the year? Why can he not open a permanent DanceAfrica building of studios at the ready to nurture African and African-diasporan dancemakers and new generations of excellent performers? Why can't young Black artists making searching, powerful work here in New York City and the states not have venues to find common ground with colleagues from the continent? Why can we not have year-round DanceAfrica residencies and retreats and networking and commissions and awards?

Why can we not have as many and as much as we want and need? And why, in particular, can't we learn--through adequate opportunities to see and document work--what we most need to know to truly give Africa's artists their due?

I want this. For myself. But also for Salaam and all the artists and audiences DanceAfrica has touched.

Dance Africa continues with 3pm matinees today and tomorrow, Memorial Day. For information on the season and related events and ticketing, click here.

BAM Gilman Opera House
Peter Jay Sharp Building
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn

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1 comment:

Brad said...

ABSOLUTLEY! Great thinking Eva on expanding this into a more thoroughly integrated institutional effort. I hope David Binder see this and will give it serious thought. We have an opportunity to really learn about Africa in all of its complex historical and contemporary manifestations and this, as wonderful as it is, does not go far enough to do that.

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