Fleck Dance Theatre - Harbourfront February 26, 2010
The Collective of Black Artists, or COBA, celebrated their 17th season with a performance of four pieces under the title Diasporic Dimensions.
Just as what we typically call simply contemporary dance speaks with a vocabulary developed through history via classical ballet and European/North American traditions, the pieces in this programme speak from African traditions. The vocabulary of movement is uniquely African in nature, a subject, as it happens, studied and written about on an academic level by choreographer/dancer/COBA co-founder BaKari E. Lindsay. That language has different dialects depending on where exactly it comes from, which handily plays back into the show's title. It wasn't necessary to have any particular background in dance at all, though, to enjoy what was an energetic, very interesting and engaging show.
The first two pieces, Mandé Variations and Maa-Keeba, were choreographed by Lindsay. The first presented an intriguing modern dance that took as its inspiration the layered, polyrhythmic playing of the kora, a traditional West African instrument, to the music of Toumani Diabaté and others. The kora is played on many levels at once, and the dance captured that sense of many threads woven and interwoven in a fluid group that came and went on stage, smaller groups that formed, then dissolved and went their separate ways.
Maa-Keeba - the only piece of the evening that wasn't a premiere - celebrates the life and work of Miriam Makeba. The popular South African singer who came to be known as Mama Africa passed away after her last performance on stage in 2008. Naturally, the music was her own, including the Click Song she made famous, in a journey that began with young love and threaded its way in and out of her life story. In it, the dancers showed their considerable and appealing dramatic skills to bring the scenes to life. It was a fitting tribute, lit up by Makeba's music and its gorgeous harmonies.
Next up was Moments, a work by Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Santus to music by Haitian groups like Lataye and Zao, and including an interlude of what sounded like French Baroque, (although I can't say whose it was off the top of my head). Moments had a very contemporary and at times avant-garde feel. In it, that African and Caribbean vocabulary of movement was abstracted. He used diverse elements like the dancers' long, unbound hair or reams of cloth among others to amplify the dancers' movements in a piece that had what felt like spiritual dimensions. Interestingly, the dancers remained in character even to the curtain call.
The evening ended on an energetic note, with Julia Morris' Hightal. It was the third piece Jamaican born Morris, also a member of the company, has choregraphed for COBA, and it's a meditation on her roots to traditional Nyabinghi rhythms. Nyabinghi is one of the oldest "mansions" of the Rastafarian religion, and their religious chants (or binghi) form the basis for what we know as reggae and ska today. The music was played live with four drums and two singers, and kept up a hypnotic pace for the ensemble of dancers, rising and ebbing in intensity. It was a rousing way to close off the night.