Monday, October 31, 2016

Immerse Yourself in Step Afrika!

What is the beginning? 

Photo by Meredith Hanafi.
Where do we start? Historically it seems humanity's origins are traced back to Africa, back to the jungle and the sand and the heat and the steady, beating heart of unbounded nature.

One of history's greatest tragedies is the forceful severance of one branch of humanity (the white western world) from the rest (people of color, but particularly Africans). Even more tragic is America's original sin of slavery and the horrific way that sin has played forward into modern times.

Thankfully and despite unfathomable obstacles, slaves carried that steady, beating heart of vivacious life from the shores of Africa to the plantations of the South to the gleaming cities of the Northern United States, enriching American culture and adapting their cultural ways into unique and innovative forms of art (see: tap dancing, blues or jazz music, or innumerable other forms of art we now take for granted).

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the entire above history come to vivid life in Step Afrika! The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence at the Ordway. The performance was a moving portrayal of the history of African Americans from when they were stolen from the shores of West Africa to their twentieth century journey to the cities of the Northern United States (Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, New York City) after the Great Migration. The narrative of the stories is paced based on the painting series called The Migration Series by incomparable painter Jacob Lawrence (you should read this fabulous book - and my review of it - about Jacob Lawrence; more information here).*
Photo by Meredith Hanafi.
The painting series provides a concise guide for narrating the dance and drum portions of the story, clearly taking us from drumming on an African beach to dry cotton plantation fields to the trains that transported freed slaves and sharecroppers to the North to the jazzy urban city streets of Chicago and New York City. It's a slick transition and performed gorgeously by the dance company, who interchanges costumes, instruments and dance steps with total ease. Each era is beautifully performed and stirs the soul. The standouts are the opening drum number, which immediately grabs you by the hips and grips you into the beat that transitions, but never diminishes, throughout the show. Also stunning was a tap dance/Step mix dance series about trains and train stations, performed by three perfectly matched male dancers who left you breathless with their perfectly attuned timing.

By the way, quick stop: if you're wondering what dancing has to do with drumming, why both are imbued with much deeper meaning than being simple performances, and how that has evolved over the years, check out this EXCELLENT TED video. It is five minutes you will never regret spending.

Back to Step Afrika!: Most of the music is rhythmic, provided either by the dancer's steps, drums, poles beaten on the floor, clapping, or some combination of the above. There are a few tracks dubbed in during transitions but honestly typical "music" isn't really necessary here - there is so much creativity provided through the rhythmic performances of the dancers that there is more than enough art to go around. There isn't much of a set to speak of - just those large, projected "paintings" by Lawrence that oversee the proceedings - and costumes are simple, just evocative enough of time periods to help you place the dancers into the appropriate era.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this show - how do you tie paintings to dance? What's the point? - but it took my breath away. It was so creative, so beautifully performed, so fully imbued with the history and story that it told, that it couldn't help but draw you in. I was pleasantly surprised and instantly left wishing that I could see more Step Afrika! performances. It's been a while since they've visited the Twin Cities, and I hope they return again soon. Sadly, there are no more performances of this show at the Ordway, but you can find more information about the tour and the company by clicking on this link. They're based in Washington D.C. and if you're able, please go see them - it's worth every penny.

*As a testament to how amazing Jacob Lawrence is (he's like the African American version of a Matisse/Gaugin mashup. It's totally contemporary and delightful, but with a more serious political undertone), listen to this: he completed the 60 piece Migration Series at the ripe old age of 23, and it was the first major series of his work published. It's proved seminal and a very important visual representation of a lesser-acknowledged portion of American history, and set Lawrence up for entree into some very elite art clubs in an age when black citizens weren't accorded much elite membership to anything. His story is compelling and truly American - I really do encourage you to look into him more.