The show opened with an eclectic vibration of powerful sound, emanating from the beautiful hands of Fara Tolno, the guest artist of the night. Jolting hand gestures and the shaking of dreadlocks added a playful, yet rigorous attitude to the sounds of his djembe. Fara Tolno electrified the stage with his opening drum call, paying homage to the African ancestors before the show began.
As the show progressed, we saw moments of traditional dances– rites of passage, drum circles with song, an impromptu drum battle between Fara Tolno and Quinn Reesor, and a Modern-infused African dance piece. We witnessed a beautiful vocal rendition by Ms. Eunice Odarkey Lampley of a song resounding the loss of her children during the “torturous activities of the Slave Trade.” accompanied by Wachira Waigwa-Stone and Fara Tolno. We also saw dances from the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Congo. The show captured the vibrancy of color and heritage through traditional garb (dashikis and boubous) and excellent lighting that punctuated the black box theatre. I appreciated Fara Tolno’s closing talk, which illuminated his life story, cultural heritage and the starting of his own arts foundation in Guinea.
Unfortunately, as a social researcher, I was underwhelmed. I am deeply disturbed by the cultural appropriation of African Dance as a form of entertainment in this show. It seemed like the dancers were “dressing up” without critically looking at their position, as an overwhelmingly white cast, in relation to the cultural context of Continental Africa. Why were all the dancers smiling in every piece, when it didn’t seem to ask for it? These facial expressions created a disconnect from the authenticity of Africanist aesthetics in concert dance. The facial expressions of the movers did not quite fit the coolness of the form, and evoked an overly dramatic, show tune aesthetic. At times, there seemed to be a lack of precision, “cool” virtuosity and groundedness in the dancer’s bodies– all of which are essential to the vitality of African Dance.
It seemed that this show catered to an overwhelmingly white audience with the intention of providing a PBS version of African Dance in culture that lacked deep awareness and empathy for African bodies in concert dance. It was too pre-packaged and relied heavily on Modern Dance vocabulary to tell its story. I appreciate the efforts of all of the movers and drummers involved, but the show as a whole missed the mark for me, in terms of providing a wholesome depiction of African culture and context. We need to look deeply at our own biases, privileges and disparities when we are placing a non-Western culture at the center of the stage, and to appreciate it on its own terms, not on ours.
Yasin A. Fairley is a graduate student in the dance department at the University of Utah. He’s recently performed locally with Porridge for Goldilocks and in Ririe-Woodbury’s Momentum.