A quarter-century ago, C. Brian Williams, who’d honed his step-dancing skills as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha at Howard University, was visiting South Africa at the dawn of the Nelson Mandela presidency. Williams saw a boy on a roadside doing a step-like gumboot dance, the kind miners in that country developed to communicate with and entertain each other. That helped persuade him that a dance theater company could bridge African and African-American step and other dance traditions. Soon after, he cofounded Step Afrika!
The exclamation point is part of the company name, and on its silver anniversary the company has more than earned it not just through its impressive concerts but through its tireless community-outreach programs. A family-friendly performance this week and next celebrates the milestone as well as the stellar troupe’s versatility as it performs step, hip-hop, and African dance, accompanied by a soul-rousing group of exceptional drummers and an otherworldly beatboxer.
Celebrating 25 Years With Step Afrika! closes June 16, 2019. Details and tickets
Choreographer Jason Nious’s “Ke Nako,” or “It’s Time,” a brief step intro, heralds the performance’s start, before Kofi Agyei, master of the African djembe drum, comes down an aisle ushering us into “Umngane,” joining two other percussionists on stage. The title is Zulu for “friend,” and choreographers Makeda Abraham, Mfoniso Akpan (the company’s artistic director), and Aseelah Shareef imagine C. Brian Williams’ first meeting with Step Afrika!’s cofounder, the late Mbuyiselwa (Jackie) Semela, who also founded the Soweto Dance Theater.
The piece begins with a women’s duet that entwines Zulu and modern movement as if time travel put Semela in a studio with Martha Graham. Soon the duo is joined by other company members and the increasingly intense percussion churns the group into an intricate and joyous ensemble, undulating in lovely orbits that spin off little twisting meteors of solo exultation.
Choreographer Jakari Sherman’s “nxt/step:hip hop” has had several incarnations since its 2006 creation. This production complements a score by Johnathan Matis and Jakari Sherman with onstage beatboxing, which on Saturday was by Rahzel. I imagine that as a child he ate a synth drum kit, which extended its electronic tendrils into his nervous system, turning him into a musical cyborg. Rahzel beats, sure, but also hits low buzzy synth notes, repeats conversational and song phrases in seemingly automated samples, and scratches invisible vinyl on ethereal turntables. (Next week beatboxer Max Bent will take on this role.)
Rahzel is onstage with dancers decked out in street clothes amped up with vibrant splashes of fresh spray-paint hues. Hip-hop meets step in fun patterns conveying frazzling, invigorating subway rides and raucous, frenzied Brooklyn streets.
“Ndlamu,” inspired by a Zulu warrior dance, was choreographed by Jackie Semela and has been remolded to fit new company members. Six drummers create a mesmerizing twister of polyrhythms. Tribal costume by Kenaan Quander sets off the dancers’ stunning physiques—their commitment is as high as their body fat percentage is low—in a series of athletic, acrobatic jumps, swirls, leaps, and pelvic gyrations. Precise group movements are offset by eye-popping solos like Emanuel Chacon’s Capoeira-informed floor moves.
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In the wrong hands, a project like “Ndlamu” could go so wrong and become a patronizing, imitative exercise. Here it goes so right, with each dancer and musician digging deep into a rich heritage while unabashedly enjoying the showiness of the enterprise. It is, after all, a warrior dance. Beyond the virtuoso flights, I loved little bits like a pivot turn with a back foot-wiping kick that I interpreted as Zulu body language for “You’re toast.”
The work made me recall the intoxicating, sweaty drum-driven tribal workshops and performances of the late, much-missed Chuck Davis, whose company introduced serious African movement and musical traditions to generations of American dancers.
Semela’s “Isicathulo” explored the gumboot style with a little story about a group of miners giving each other good-natured grief and flirting with and showing off for a beautiful woman in the distance. Then Chacon stepped and tapped a solo and turned the audience into a many-voiced, multi-handed crowd instrument while his colleagues recovered and changed before Jakari Sherman’s “Thula,” Zulu for “hush,” brought the proceedings to a sharp step close.
If you missed the production this week, catch it next, and bring the kids. Arrive in anticipation. Leave in exhilaration.
Step Afrika! presents Celebrating 25 Years With Step Afrika! at the Hartke Theater of the Catholic University of America. Directed by Mfoniso Akpan. Featuring: Mfoniso Akpan, Emanuel Chacon, Deatrice Clark, Kiera Harley, Conrad Kelly, Vincent Montgomery, Ronnique Murray, Jerel Williams, Olabode (Buddie) Oladeinde, Anesia Sandifer, Jordan Spry, Nicolas Stewart, Ta’Quez Whitted. With special guests Rahzel, Max Bent, Dionne Eleby, Kofi Agyei, Jeeda Barrington, Jakari Sherman. Production manager: Simone Baskerville. Sound design/engineer: Kevin Alexander. Costume design: Kenaan Quander. Lighting design: Niomi Collard. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.