Celebrating the Collective: Ujima Dance Theatre

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

On a Saturday night in Philadelphia, Ujima Dance Theatre brought The Dancer’s Artist Showcase, a series of seven pieces by company members and emerging artists, to CHI Movement Center. Throughout the course of the evening, the dancers showcased a wide range of subjects in their movement, encompassing both the traditional and the contemporary.

Beginning the evening’s program was part one of Southern Breeze by company director Shana El and performed by Aliya Anderson. The core of this piece lies in the strength portrayed by Anderson on stage, whose performance was subtle yet powerful. The movements rippled outward from the core, lending them a sense of poised control at all times and allowing for flashes of resilience to find their way to the surface within moments that seemed somber. This strength and resilience are important within the scope of the work as it pertains to police brutality and injustice towards African Americans, embodying the struggle that many communities face in current-day America. While the work was certainly heavy, it was not hopeless, as Anderson’s strength and Shana El’s choreography painted a picture of power under duress and the strength to hope for a better future.

The night’s second work, Colibri, was choreographed by Michaela Clovis and featured Clovis herself alongside two other dancers in a tap number inspired by hummingbirds. The avian influence was clear as the dancers move their arms with a light airy quality which is suggestive of wings. A sense of community or shared experience was pervasive in this piece as the dancers worked in harmony with one another, and even during occasional moments where one performer was featured over the others the rest of the group remained supportive in a way that didn’t overpower the soloist.

Closing the first act was Sinte by guest artist J Bogan El, based on a traditional West African dance performed for the initiation of young people and other special occasions. El and fellow drummer Latif Ezekiel performed live percussion, entering through the back of the space and traveling through the audience before reaching the stage. This served to draw the audience into the dance, disrupting the typical observer/performer relationship in favor of a supportive communal vibe. Eventually, two dancers enter and begin performing the dance itself which takes the rhythm as well as the call and response patterns of the drums and translates them to movement effortlessly. In a way it seems as if each dancer represents one of the drums, highlighting the way in which the music and movement are entwined.

Following a brief intermission came Overcome by Aliya Anderson, a piece which examined mass incarceration and its effect on African American communities and families. Motifs included contractions of the upper body as well as a linking of arms and hands which suggested both hardship as well as unity, solidarity, and a shared experience. The piece explored mass incarceration through the perspective of women affected by it, using recorded interviews as a sound score to support the dancers and connect the movement to the message of the piece as a whole. Again, like Southern Breeze, despite the subject matter there is a powerful resolve to the work and a sense that change can be found through inner strength and the support of those around you.

The final three works on the program were all choreographed by Shana El, the first of which was titled Unity. This work featured dancers locked in synch with each other, echoing one another’s movements in a sort of ebb and flow as they revolved around the space. The way in which they existed in a state of action and reaction with one another promoted the idea that, while they are in unison they exist as separate identities interacting with one another rather than a single entity acting alone. Unity is derived from shared individuality and exists as a union of people and ideas rather than a homogenization of smaller pieces into a larger indistinct form. In exploring the idea of unity from this angle El connects this work to the others in the evening’s program, especially those involving community and solidarity, creating a sort of unity within the night’s program itself.

The penultimate piece saw the return of J Bogan El and Latif Ezekiel on the drums as Shana El performed a solo to their percussion. El performed utilizing the full range of motion in her torso and arms, grounding herself through the core to give a dynamic and enthralling performance which matched the high energy of the drums. Much like in Sinte the percussion served to pull the audience into the world of the choreography, allowing them to feel the interaction between music and movement rather than experience it as a third party.

As the lights faded and the drummers took their leave, El remained on stage and immediately began part two of Southern Breeze which returned to the somber yet powerful mood of the evening’s opening performance. El now moves with a smooth, stoic grace which perfectly conveys her emotions as a performer. There is a sense of mourning in her movements yet this mourning is undercut by the quiet power within the way she carries herself throughout the choreography. The fact that Southern Breeze both began, and concluded the evening’s works helps to ground the concert as a whole in the world of contemporary issues at a national scale. It asks the audience to consider police brutality and mass incarceration, leaving them with questions to ponder once the lights have gone down. At the start of the performances, Shana El told the audience that Ujima means “collective work and responsibility” and in more ways than one that sentiment rang true at The Artists Showcase. Through the collaborative nature of the work on display, the emphasis placed on community and solidarity, and the way in which the audience was invited into the work; Ujima Dance Theatre was able to let their philosophy be felt by the community at large.

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