SLAM tap tap tap tap… SLAM tap tap tap tap….
Like a shot from a gun or a huge book crashing to the ground, the SLAM defies description. It’s a sound not so much heard as felt. The impact of the man’s shoe on the stage sends vibrations into my chest.
It’s just one moment in a two act performance created by Step Afrika!, but like the scenes that preceded and followed, it makes one thing clear: this company is shattering ideas about dancing being an esoteric art form. This is movement of the people, by the people and for the people.
The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence consists of nine scenes that fuse drumming, stepping, tap, singing, and projections by Lawrence to evoke the strength and resilience of people who traveled great distances. Step Afrika! partnered with The Phillips Collection, which jointly owns Lawrence’s “Migration Series” panels with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to create the production.
The resulting show not only deepens our understanding of artistic innovation but also connects with varied audiences. It’s for people who enjoy athletic and virtuosic dancing, those who understand the history of stepping and its codes, those who are curious about American history, and it’s for anyone who’s seeking a life-affirming evening of theater.
From the get-go the auditorium is filled with sound: the performance opens with ten men and women drumming, creating a polyrhythmic landscape that is powerful and precise. Then guest artist Abdou Muhammad comes out with a djembe. The contrast between the visual and auditory is stunning: his hands are a blur yet his beats snap the air like firecrackers.
Assata Barton performs a solo inspired by west African dancing: her legs bend easily, connecting her steps to the earth – grounded and secure – yet her torso ripples like liquid, sending her arms swinging. There’s a gorgeous sense of play between strength and grace, structure and freedom.
Scenes seamlessly transition from solos to groups: music, lighting, and choreography blend together to create evocations of the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The dancers wear muted tones and outfits that look like workers’ attire.
A narrator tells us how the drums were banned in the 1700s, which gave rise to the ring shout, tap dance, and stepping – all forms that use the human body like a percussive instrument. A duet between tap dancer Ryan Johnson and modern dancer Michael Alford is a conversation of opposites: Johnson’s muscular steps dig deep into the stage; Alford’s limbs float away from his body like wings.
Throughout the performance. visual projections offer glimpses of Lawrence’s panels called “The Migration Series” that were made between 1940 and 1941 when the artist was 23 years old. During some scenes the performers share the colors and attitudes of people in these panels; at other times the images serve as springboards for the action.
The second act of shows people traveling to the North; their clothing becomes colorful dresses for the women and suits for the men, indicators of their new lifestyles and enjoyments.
“Off the Train”, choreographed by Jakari Sherman, is phenomenal: three men, Christopher Brient, Joe Murchison, and Sherman, use their bodies, voices, and suitcases to become the train, its passengers, and the North’s newest arrivals. This trio makes clear that stepping is vital and versatile.
But words cannot capture the transcendent impact of this scene or the performance as a whole. It’s a show that needs to be experienced: a blend of incredible movement, rhythms and singing (especially Bianca Taylor’s performance of “Wade in the Water”). The performers not only bring Lawrence’s images to life but also shed light on the richness of human communication.
Step Afrika! – the first professional company dedicated to stepping – is charting new territory: The Migration is a testament to their creativity, craft, and extraordinary power. The choreography by Sherman and members of the company is beautifully planned and coordinated. Some scenes are explosions of rapid beats and crisp steps; others times, the dancers pause and watch one another creating an intimate environment and humanistic ethos.
These are not dancers pretending to be creatures from a distant planet, but people sharing their gifts, interacting with us and with one another, and savoring a feeling of being fully alive.
Step Afrika’s The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence performs at Atlas Performing Arts Center thru June 26, 2011. All performances are sold out. However, we are told the performance will return to Atlas this Fall.