Kariamu and Company, comprised of dancers trained in Kariamu Welsh’s pan-African Umfundalai technique, performed Same Father, Different Mother at Temple’s Conwell Dance Theater on Saturday night. The concert, which ran the gamut from traditional to contemporary in its treatment of both joyous and somber themes, was a huge hit with the audience.
Choreographer and Unfundalai Master Teacher Seleana Pettaway broke the stillness with a gorgeous a cappella solo performed in a small circle of light at the foot of the stage. As the music began, four of her students from Eastern University began to “dig” their way across the stage, bent at the waist, hands clasped, shoulders rolling, in the aptly titled Diggin Lalibela. Named for the so-called eighth wonder of the ancient world, the Ethiopian town of Lalibela is home to eleven ancient churches hewn from solid rock. The dancers’ technique, strong at times and liquid at others as the four women veered into a backward attitude turn then landed gracefully on their knees, seemed to reflect this timeless solidity.
Suits, choreographed by C. Kemel Nance, another of Welsh’s Master Teachers, straddled the line between serious dance and sexy flash mob. It began with vocalist Brandon Oakley singing an a cappella version of Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd, then morphed into an explosion of playful masculinity as the seven dancers circled the stage while circling their heads. With such talented dancers and such bold costumes, it had the makings of a great piece but it lacked cohesion, as though Nance had too many good ideas for a single piece.
Welsh’s Raaamonaah Revisted was a haunting elegy for the victims of the 1985 bombing of their home on Osage Ave. by the Philadelphia Police Department in an effort to evict John Africa and his “naturalist” community of MOVE followers. Intriguingly, the work focused on Romanah Africa, the single adult survivor, as portrayed by dancer Adrienne Abdus-Salaam, and her alter egos, portrayed by Pettaway and Shaness Kemp. The eleven dancers entered the stage slowly, a few steps forward, then one back, each carrying a large African mask. Although highly theatrical, the work avoided pathos through the use of spoken text and repetitive phrases that emphasized resilience and resistance instead of grief. Abdus-Salaam, Pettaway and Shaness Kemp jutted their hips, planting their heels firmly into the floor, then crawled across the stage as they arched their backs in perfect unison with the drums. In one particularly beautiful moment, Abdus-Salaam balanced on one leg, her weight pitched forward in a flexed-foot attitude as though caught between all the emotions of that tragic event.
Following the Umfundalai Certification Ceremony, the second act took a bit of a nose dive. The evening’s title piece, Same Father, Different Mother, choreographed by Welsh to music by Me’Shell Ndegécello, felt sleepy. Although performed by the most technically proficient dancers of the company, the choreography, which veered from slow motion yoga to energetic jogging as the dancers leapt across the stage, the eclectic jazz score was ill-suited for the emotional energy of the piece.
Brady Hill’s ambitious and will intentioned Style Stepping featured a trio of talented and energetic female dancers in addition to Hill but it too fell short. Wearing white blazers with sequined tops and gold sneakers, the dancers grooved to the music of Teddy Pendergrass but the choreography—although a joy to watch— felt slightly underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the concert.
Taking Flight ended the concert on a high note. Inspired by the 1962 Robert Hayden poem “Runagate, Runagate, Runagate” to work paid tribute to work of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. This was Kariamu and Company at its best: brilliant costumes designed by Firmine Houemave and Ameera Ansari, smart choreography by Welsh and a passionate, heartfelt execution by all of the dancers. The work varied between ensemble sections and smaller pairings and trios in which the dancers were constantly in motion, referencing a literal train without falling into a musical theater pastiche, as they “journeyed from can’t to can.”
Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist. She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company. Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.
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