October 10, 2002

Let the Rhythm Rule

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Even as the theater lights dimmed to complete darkness, I still found myself closing my eyes in order to fully take in the complete richness and feeling of that thick, resonant voice singing out a single word: echo.

Three figures stepped out on stage, lit only by the candles they carried, for the opening of the African American Dance Ensemble program held at Kiplinger Theatre in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Friday October 4. Performing a traditional piece paying homage to the ancestors, this was a powerful opener, regardless of the lack of light. The entire show was a mix of traditional, modern interpretive, and spiritual dances, along with a bit of comedy — definitely not your typical run-of-the-mill night out at the theater.

The creation of the Ensemble in 1984 was a long time coming. Artistic Director and company founder Dr. Chuck Davis has had professional experience in dance since 1959, and his own company since 1968. The African American Dance Ensemble was officially created by Davis in 1984 and has been performing ever since, doing shows as well as educational workshops for school kids. The Ensemble came to Cornell as the first of two professional touring companies to take part in the Schwartz Center Dance Series this year.

Ok, I’ll admit it. I didn’t walk into this show with high expectations. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy watching some good cultural dance. But if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right?

How wrong I was. Here is a dance company that knows a thing or two about engaging the audience. I could tell you about the fantastic lighting and costumes, or how amazingly skilled these dancers were to pull off some of those crazily intricate, nearly acrobatic moves. But just tuck that in the back of your mind for the next time they’re in town, because those elements are certainly great reasons to see this show. However, there are some other very unique elements that make this show different from anything else I’ve ever seen, and those are their artistic director, Dr. Chuck Davis, their instrument ensemble, and the audience.

Let me start with the director. Between certain selections, Davis came out on stage to address the audience. In West African terms he was known as a griot, or oral historian, and Mr. Davis’ job was to explain to the audience some of the background on the dances and the message each is trying to convey. This has the potential to be an extremely boring lecture, but Davis immediately engaged the audience by teaching some piecemeal African phrases that roughly translate to “attention,” “I’m listening,” and “unity.” After yelling three “agoo’s” (“attention’s” for those who don’t speak West African) the audience breaks into a short dance Davis has choreographed in a matter of minutes. Paying to see a good show is one thing, but being able to dance in your seat without getting funny looks from your neighbor is priceless.

Next is the music. A major portion of the show was devoted to the traditional drums played by four musicians with a sense of humor. A section entitled Obonu, or “the spirit of music from the drum,” gave the players a bit of a chance to impress the audience. I’m not sure how many artistic directors would appreciate their performers trying to show off by twirling a drum stick in the air and then missing on the way back down, but it’s all a joke in this show. Davis comes out to retrieve the stick, jokingly shakes his head at his performer, and walks off stage amidst the roar of laughter coming from the seats below. And regardless of the slip-up, I can’t complain — I don’t know how to play the drums like that.

Then there’s the audience, who’s as much a part of the show as the dancers. The central theme of the show was to demonstrate the need for unity among all. “Peace, love, respect for everybody.” You see this again and again in dances that portray spirituality, the need to embrace the nation’s youth, and honoring your elders: all good lessons we’ve heard before. So what really drives the point home is the conclusion of the show. Everyone is asked to stand up, hold hands, and listen to Davis’ entrancing voice say a small prayer: “let me live my life so the preacher doesn’t have to lie at my funeral.” Classic. We were told to hug three people before we left, and amazingly every student around me did. I doubt you would see this happen in the middle of Psych 101, no matter how good the lecture was.

Archived article by Laura Borden