By Zachary Whittenburg
I go to Muntu’s concerts to see people dance their asses off. The group’s live music interludes are generally great as well, and introduce me to rhythms such as the Yambú, a Cuban rumba, which inspires a first-act trio, Trumpet, during the company’s new program at the DuSable Museum, “Spice it Up!”
But it’s Muntu’s balls-out interpretation of traditional dances, mostly African, that got me hooked. I’m no expert on the sorsonet, from Guinea, but when six Muntu women and artistic director Amaniyea Payne finish performing it, I immediately want to see it again. (Sidebar: The sorsonet is apparently traditionally associated with female circumcision. Click here for an interesting account of how the National Ballet of Guinea reframed its history.) Muntu follows its sorsonet with a doundounba, for four men, titled Hamana for the Guinean region where it originated. This dance is also mesmerizing stuff. Lavish, heavy-looking costumes for the diptych, by Vaune Blalock and Su Quan Diop, enhance already-stimulating visuals.
Moustapha Bangoura’s Konkobah celebrates cooperation and agricultural labor; in this dance, the women carry large bowls and the men hammer-like tools. Konkobah gives company member Amansu Eason plenty of opportunities to show off his prodigious jump. Nobody minds, especially not the gaggle of young women to my right, screaming their heads off at his every move.
“Spice it Up!” includes the premiere of a new piece by Payne and Idy Ciss titled Roff for a blend of spices used in Senegalese cuisine. “The younger generation now presents these traditional dances with flash and fire by adding a dash of this and a pinch of that,” say their program notes, “while still honoring the culture.” For sure, one of the most fascinating parts of Roff’s solos are flashes of reference, from Muntu’s youngest members, to very contemporary, very American movement, as if single frames from Beyoncé’s or Rihanna’s videos are being spliced into Senegalese bougarabou and sabar. (These moments also bring screams of delight from kids and teens in the crowd.)
The 150-minute program, something of a kickoff for Muntu’s 40th anniversary next year, lags a bit here and there. Suite Nina, to a mix of Nina Simone and Mos Def songs, an interview with Simone and what sounds like clips from news reports from Hurricane Katrina, shoots for pointed critique but doesn’t aim before it fires. The other contemporary work, Reggie Wilson’s SHOUTing rings, resonates much more deeply. Wilson’s hand with teasing structure out of seemingly casual, random arrangements of bodies and song is absolutely expert, and it reveals how many of Muntu’s dancers are also great vocalists.
It’s a shame that not everyone has the stamina to wait out the program till its end: Closer Balante, which dramatizes a marriage rite of the Balanta people of West Africa, is a blast.