DanceAfrica celebrates 15 years as a Chicago gathering
Every fall for the past 15 years, Chicago has hosted the DanceAfrica festival, easily one of the leading African and African-American culture events in North America. This year's festival, which runs from October 21 to 23, is called SANKOFA—a West African concept that means moving forward with a sense of history and what has already passed. This year's main-stage performances include six ensembles from Uganda, South Africa, Philadelphia, North Carolina and Chicago.
Local troupe Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, led by Kevin Iega Jeff, made its DanceAfrica debut in 2003 with Jagged Ledges, a work specially commissioned by DanceAfrica in partnership with the Ohio-based King Arts Complex and the National Performance Network. This year, the troupe is preparing its repertory pieces The Dance We Dance, Surrender and Heaven for the festival.
Plans are underway for a collaboration with fellow Chicagoans and DanceAfrica veterans Muntu Dance Theatre "to intertwine our work by linking segments, maybe with poetry or spoken word," says DeeplyRooted's co–artistic director Gary Abbott. The inclusion of poetry in the event may reflect the influence of Michael Warr, a poet and founder of the Guild Complex who now serves as DanceAfrica's producing director.
These intrafestival collaborations are common in DanceAfrica, which feels more like the gathering of a large, extended family than an impersonal themed festival. At the start of all shows, the audience and performers are drawn together by the magnanimous greetings of Charles "Baba Chuck" Davis, the festival's father figure and artistic director.
At a past DanceAfrica event, dancers from Rennie Harris's Philly-based hip-hop company Puremovement shared the stage with Davis's Durham, North Carolina–based African American Dance Ensemble, which preserves traditional dance forms. Together they performed in a circular dance that juxtaposed hip-hoppers in baggy outfits withtimeless-looking warriors holding oblong shields. Harris is a remarkable choreographer who has successfully moved from the makeshift cardboard stage of sidewalk break-dancing to art venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art. Both groups will appear again at DanceAfrica.
The "cousins from abroad" this year will be Ndere Troupe fromKampala, Uganda, and Prophets of da City from Cape Town, SouthAfrica. Ndere's artists are known for their musical expertise on various types of Ugandan flutes and wind instruments, as well as their dances and the stringed and percussion instruments that they play. Last but definitely not least, Prophets of da City is Cape Town's foremost hip-hop, rap and break-dancing crew. It should be fascinating to see how African-American forms are reinterpreted in Africa itself.
Under Davis's sensitive artistic direction and with input from the DanceAfrica Chicago Council of Elders, the festival is a beautiful celebration of pulsing continuity between generations and across geography.DanceAfrica takes place at the Chicago Theatre Oct 21–23. For ticket information, call 312-344-7070 or visit www.danceafricachicago.com.