by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – I am not a dancer. I am not knowledgeable enough to tell you if the dancers’ technique was correct or not. This review isn’t going to talk about the technical aspects of the show I experienced. What I will write about are the feelings it evoked and the story it told. Before I begin, let me give you a little background information about Step Afrika!’s show The Migration: Reflections of Jacob Lawrence.
The show is based on Jacob Lawrence’s iconic series of paintings charting the African-American movement from south to north in the early 1900s. Divided into six different dances, combined together they tell this specifically American story – a story of pain and triumph and of slavery and freedom. Eleven choreographers created the dances, a number of whom are also part of the Migration’s dance company.
As you might expect, drumming is central to the work. The show opens with ten dancers – five men and five women – drumming in unison, faster or slower, louder or softer, with a power and majesty that pulls you into their world. There is something primal about drums – the sound awakens in us a sense of the natural world. It’s easy to forget about modern technology as the beat of the drums envelop you and transport you back to a simpler time. This first dance is called “Drum Call,” and it depicted an African village, the arrival of foreign ships and the turmoil that ensued. What struck me most about the movement of this piece was the use the dancers’ arms. One thinks of dance as involving feet and legs, but the arms of the dancers were just as crucial to the emotion of the piece. Wide swinging arms moving in unison added to the power of the moment.
The dances continued taking us to the new world, through slavery, and then freedom. The “Wade” dance contained two movements, both with the theme of spirituality. The African-American spiritual lifted broken spirits and gave strength to those who thought they couldn’t make it through the trauma of slavery and its aftermath. These dances were uplifting and passionate.
A stand out moment was the solo tap number by a male dancer who is not singled out in the program. He starts tapping slowly with measured taps and then builds and builds with greater intensity, reaching a shattering crescendo before tapping us back to the beginning. It was an awesome spectacle to witness. Another showstopping moment came when guest artist Abdou Muhammad performed an incredible number on the djembe. His hands were a blur as he snapped out a powerful beat on the single drum.
Some of the best moments were when the dancers interacted with the audience. We joined in clapping with the beat at one point and we also repeated the phrases “They took the drums away” and “They could not stop the beat.” I would encourage Step Afrika! to do more of this audience interaction. If the woman next to me who was moving rhythmically in her seat for much of the performance is any indication, the audience wants to be a greater part of the action. Even a rhythmically challenged person like me found myself moving with the beat.
The use of video images of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on the screens behind the action kept us grounded in the story. John D. Alexander’s lighting design expertly complemented the emotion of the dances. The one technical glitch came before the show could begin, the haze effect used at the beginning of the show set off Hancher’s fire alarm system, which meant a long delay while they got someone to get the systems up and running again. The thirty plus minute delay was frustrating but quickly forgotten once the show began.
When considering the show as a whole, the word that keeps returning to my mind is empowerment. Power exuded from the dancers as they stepped and glided across the stage. Power resonated with every tap of a shoe on the floor and every bang of a hand on a drum. I left the auditorium with an extra jump in my step, the energy of the performance still powering me forward toward my car. It was simply a glorious experience.
Unfortunately, Step Afrika! was only here for one public performance at Hancher, so I cannot encourage you to check them out (unless Hancher brings them back next year…) However, I can encourage you to check out Hancher’s list of events. Perhaps you could consider an event that isn’t on your normal list of experiences. Hancher brings in such a variety of theatrical acts, it behooves us to venture outside of our comfort zone.