Muntu Dance Theatre is hotter than hot these days

by Sid Smith, See Chicago Dance

Though familiar and venerable, Muntu Dance Theatre is hotter than hot these days. Saturday's gala performance at the Harris Theater showed off a troupe that's never been faster, never been more animated, as it continues to push the limits of its cultural exploration into valuable new terrain.

Does the Harris stage still have a roof? I wouldn't have been all that shocked to wake up Sunday and read it had swirled away into the skies, as untouchable as Dorothy's farm house tornado-ing its way to Oz. Galas, of course, often result in a surprising benefit. To accommodate time, the performances are kept short and frequently intermission-less, as was the case Saturday. That gave Muntu the chance to program works that built to a feverish momentum while allowing for some quiet, reflective moments, too.

But it's the works themselves and the amazing talent of the dancers, in the end, that matter, and the Saturday line-up boasted both impressive newcomers to the troupe's roster, some breathtaking classics and a few guests and surprises. In an important move of cultural preservation, the troupe performed for the first time two classics by Pearl Primus, the dance pioneer and Katherine Dunham contemporary underappreciated and neglected in our era. Muntu performed two searing, fascinating classics, both accompanied by live narration by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, reciting the Langston Hughes' poems that serve as text for both works. Bruce was a fetching choice: her deep and deeply felt delivery is the narrative equivalent of fine singing, powerful in effectiveness and yet tinged with the most delicate pronunciations, particularly of words with the letter "s." The works are fascinating bookends. "A Negro Speaks of Rivers" manages to encapsulate much African and African-American history by means of poetic evocation of waterways, and Primus provides a stunning trio for three women (Errin Berry, Beverly Carrington and Shakeena President-Beckford) that is all by itself a study in mid-century modern dance, fused with African-American sensibility. Not for nothing was Primus an anthropologist, among her many accomplishments. The swoops, bright twirls and haunting hand formations have a mythic, iconic feel. The brightly colored, diamond-glittery costumes, by the way, were designed by Vaune Blalock and Muntu artistic director Amaniyea Payne, whose leadership of Muntu remains one of the strongest and most consistent in our city.

"Hard Time Blues," by contrast, is an exhilarating dance of joy, though one with struggle and defiance slyly laced into its high-flying qualities. It's an exuberant solo, as it happens, for Amansu Eason, who races across the stage diagonal in one signature segment, leaps into the air in noteworthy defiance of gravity and then grabs for invisible particles or maybe lifelines--the whole work is a gorgeous metaphor of human determination to not just battle the odds, but reach for the gods in the process.

"Pearl," as the combined works are titled, was tremendously backed up by Muntu's always delightful musicians, which, this go-round, included the sensational Alyo Children's Dance Theatre in the opening, a raucous, relentless onslaught of percussive solos, acrobatics and one amazing dance performed by an uncanny, demon-red-clad performer on stilts.

I'd not seen Moustapha Bangoura's Muntu works employing Guinea dance tradition, but what a great addition to the repertory they make. There's a relatively subdued quality to this strain of African dance, one flush with subtle design elements, soothing sashays and struts and bursts of lyricism and warmth--the circle becomes an inviting communal image. Frenzy nevertheless results by the end of these pieces, which involves a later circle of astonishing speed, a breathtaking finish and a flourish as colorful as the gingerbread costumes.

Eason provided an effective contemporary dance tribute to Michael Jackson, replete with images from "Thriller" and a moving finale full of gospel spirit and redemption. And then Muntu pulled out what stops were left with "Fangama," a dynamite showpiece with competition-like solos and acrobatics and as invigorating a cry to battle as any imaginable.

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