African Music
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CK Ladzekpo, Director

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Dance Review

Dance: ‘Dance and Music of Africa,’ at Jacob’s Pillow

By Anna Kisselgoff

Lee, Mass, July 22 — “The Dance and Music of Africa,” a program that opened last night at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, is not your ordinary presentation of ethnic dance.

It is one of the most thoughtful and engrossing programs of African dancing, singing, and instrumental virtuosity to be seen in this country in many years. The presentation is high in quality, blending the old and new, and it is theoretically staged but also close to life in its inclusion of several nonprofessional performers.

The four-part bill, which runs through Saturday, features four different groups of African or African trained American performers based in Africa, California and Chicago.

Despite it’s wonderful accessibility, the program has actually been put together by experts and includes, as both performers and mentors, specialist of the highest order.

The most obvious example is Foday Musa Suso, a virtuoso on the the kora, a 21 string instrument that looks like a huge lute and sounds like a harp. An official griot, or keeper of oral traditions for the Mandingo people in Gambia, Mr. Suso recently traveled through West Africa with the American composer, Philip Glass, and since 1978 has collaborated with American Jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock.

It would be a grave mistake to see Mr. Suso as a crossover musician, as merely a bridge between musical cultures. As his playing of the kora and two other instruments made clear, he is an artist of great purity.

This purity marked the evening as a whole. It was obvious that something was unusual from the minute one stepped inside the Ted Shawn theatre. The portraits of the festivals patron Saints were flanked by African tapestries on the theatre walls.

Liz Thompson, the festivals director, began her her curtain speech by noting that one of her policies at the Pillow has been to introduce experimental American dance to a broader public. “The Dance and Music of Africa ” program, in her view, is a similar attempt to introduce a general public to work “ inspired by tradition.”

The curator of the program is Spider Kedelsky, an American dancer and teacher who was responsible for organizing the superb presentation of Aboriginal dancers and singers form Australia, seen in New York and elsewhere in 1982.

Ms. Thompson who selected the performers, and Mr. Kedelsky, who wrote the informative program notes and familiarized Ms. thompson with the groups she chose, have done an outstanding job this week.

The program opened with 12 women entering the theatre from the back and singing as they walked down the aisle and up onto the stage. These were the Swazi Women Singers and Dancers, a group of professional weavers from Swaziland who are living in the United States for two years while they complete several large tapestries designed by the American artist, Ron Renmark. The tapestries will on view at the International Airport in Tampa, Fla.

Initially carrying a knife and a fish-shaped tray, one shoulder bare with a long shawl wrapped over a skirt, each woman bowed from the waist onstage at the end of every song. The Songs were obviously different in rhythm and grew more forceful, with the singers shifting weight, rotating hands, shooting an arm out and and breaking up their initial image of solidarity.

Nonetheless, a spirit of feminine solidarity radiated at all times, although some specifically by men. Some , as the program notes indicate, have a highly contemporary feminist sensibility. When the women slapped their thighs, the gesture was apparently an abstracted indication, of sorts, to a clumsy lover.

In contrast to the graceful if exuberant women’s group, the dancers and musicians of the Ladzekpo Brothers and the African Music and Dance Ensemble were energy personified. In their dances of the Ewe people of Dahomey, six women and two men, holding whisks, spurted into staccato bursts of movement. Yet these were fast collage-like phrases, performed in place; gestures, steps and torso contractions erupted and ended suddenly like the torrent of drums accompanying them. The dancers held themselves in flattened, angular shapes - those that had inspired Picasso’s Cubism, perhaps. The group directed by C.K. Ladzekpo, includes faculty members at various universities in California.

After Mr. Suso’s singing and playing, the dancers and drummers of Fua Dia Congo broke loose with a suite from Central Africa. Five drummers frequently stepped to the fore — and some danced. But the dances were chiefly divided among men and women, although their pelvis-rotating themes were shared. Strictly patterned but brimming with improvisational virtuosity, the dances provided the proverbial riot of color. It isn’t every day that you see dancers so visibly enjoying the act of dancing.

Season At Jacob Pillow Dance Festival

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