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A lively trip back through time from Muntu

Chicago Tribune
Written by Sid Smith
Published: December 14, 2012
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Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago's program "The Journey" is very much a live, up-to-the-minute event, the dancers all but crashing through the floor with their animated footwork, ending with an encore session that invites audience members to come on stage.

But this engagement through Sunday at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts is also a trip back in time, featuring works by two former artistic directors Abdoulaye Camara and Alyo Tolbert, in addition to pieces by current head Amaniyea Payne and others. A photo montage features images of the dancers on stage and off, performing and rehearsing, taken throughout the troupe's 40 years.

Most of the pieces in "The Journey" are deeply traditional, reflecting Muntu's longtime mission. Both "Kotebah" by Camara and "Soko" by Tolbert are about rites of passage, the former inspired by the northern region of Senegal, the latter from Guinea. "Kotebah," begins with a running motif, arms swinging forcefully in rhythmic partnership with the feet, and gradually relies on circular patterns, including an especially intricate one for the women.

"Soko" is even more energetic, full of fast, rich footwork and high velocity. The programming of both works offers glimpses of how different African cultures respond to the passage into adulthood, and how these different choreographers reflect that--not so much a stark contrast as vibrant echoes of each other.

Payne's work, "Thru Mandela's Eyes," from 1989, combines classic moves with modern poetry and contemporary issues. Payne herself portrays the role of the "dub poet," reciting verse saluting freedom fighting and denouncing oppression, the cast clothed not in Muntu's typically colorful garb, but costumes evoking military camouflage. It is unsentimental, but hopeful. The "power is ours," Payne recites as they exit.

Other highlights include the carnival-like sauciness in the harvest segment of Camara's "Kouterio Suite" and the strange, mystical creature who ends that same piece, a dancer draped in a grass-like costume, a whirling figure of both magic and danger.

The best part of any journey is its end, and Muntu concludes this one with an impromptu party, various patrons welcomed on stage to show off their own impressive talent and wild, uninhibited energy. This will vary from night to night, but Thursday's contingent were irresistibly on fire.

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