Art, music & dancefusion imbues Step Afrika!

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company dedicated to step dancing . Founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams after he learned the artform in his fraternity at Howard University and later traveled to Africa to research the origins of this form of dance and musical storytelling.

“The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence” is on of Step Afrika! most elaborate productions and is on a nationwide tour that swung into the Annenberg Center last week for four performances.  It is an  expanded version of company choreographer Jakari Sherman’s 2011 dance-theater work inspired by Lawrence’s 60 tempura art panels depicting the exodus of African Americans from the Southern States to Northern cities. Co- directors Sherman and Mfoniso Akpan have packed the high- octane step tableaus with other dance genres that reflect the full scope of Lawrence’s visual history that is projected on screens over the stage.

The 60 panels, painted simultaneously in 1941 by a 23 year old Lawrence, captures the scope and human drama of the great migration in a style Lawrence described as ‘action’ cubism and the images without doubt have kinetic and dramatic urgency.

The show opens with 14 dancer-percussionists standing behind a phalanx of West African drums is the equally dramatic opening scene of StepAfrika!: The Migration.  “Drum Call” choreographed and composed by Sherman and jazz composer W.E.Smith, that strikes as an invocation of dance. As the rhythms get louder and more complex, the performers lace in intricate dance moves between the beats of their playing.

In “Go west: circa 1890” (choreographed by Akpan, Makeda Abraham and Delaunce Jackson) a stirring evocation of African dance and drum language.  Drum virtuoso Jabari Exum  joyously beats out call and response messages on the djembe.  Meanwhile, the choreography gives way to new social dance moves evolved from those traditions.

“Go West” is the highlight of the show and exemplar of the troupe’s preservation of dance as historical document and cultural witness.  The choreographers weave together a time-lapse dance mosaic that encompasses so much history.   It culminates in the declarations of defiance against a racist society that would forbid African Americans to read and write.  Delaunce Jackson  picks up a rainstick and beats out new rhythms in between explosive jumps and tap patterns, with the rallying cry “They took away our drums” but they couldn’t “Take away the beat.”

That beat comes roaring out in “Drumfolk” (choreographed by David Pleasant) explores the historic lineage of African-American communal dances as cultural documentation and expression.  The rhythms of the banned drums are transcribed as music into choreographic body percussion expressed through hops, stomping, slapping and footwork- formally called Juba, Hambone and Ring Shout- Those forms proto-dances to formal tap-dancing and all of its street and stage variants.

“Wade Suite” reflects how black churches in the south were not only spiritual sanctuaries, but safe houses for blacks from harassment by police and racist militias like the KKK. Choreographed by Kirsten Ledford, LeeAnet Noble and Paul Woodruff, it builds from vocalist Brittny Smith soaring a capella rendition of Wade in the Water to a dance ensemble showstopper.  

Sherman’s  “Trane Suite”  (in homage to jazz giant John Coltrane, who himself was part of the great migration) scored to music by W.E.Smith begins Act II that features Lawrence’s cityscapes.  There is a dramatic noir feel as a saxophonist performs, bathed in blue light, plays a sultry blues. The dancers appear in 30s couture- men in pleated pants, vests and skies- women in silky florals, pumps and chapeaus- pairing off and sweeping over the stage in smooth balletic duets.

The New York transit stop depicted by Lawrence is dramatized by vintage stepping by dancers Joe Murchison, Jorday Spry, Christopher Brient on a train platform where they dance a synchronized ‘Gumboot’ tap trio with their suitcases. Their hopes for the future dashed a moment later as they confront prejudice and little opportunity.  Their wives, portrayed by dancers Akpan, Charise Pinkton and Dionne Eleby, wait to hear good news from the men, even as they express their emotion struggles in a vignette scored to Nina Simone’s “My Man’s Gone Now.”

‘Chicago’ is Sherman’s rousing, and straightforward showdance finale, to coincide with the panels.  It seemed too short in its exuberance. Lawrence’s visual story ends- but its artistic journey goes on.  Lawrence’s powerful artistry and the dance-theater-musical it inspired, resonates more than ever.

StepAfrika! The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence is on a nationwide tour through April 2017. Check for more dates and cities.   

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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