The African drums were beating loudly, the musicians wore authentic headwear and the dancers were dressed traditionally for Dance Encounters at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre last Friday, a night of African dance in a show of two halves.
In Theatreland having a live music accompaniment isn’t uncommon – have a look at our review of Shoes last week for a music-slash-dance revue. More often than not accompaniments are typically theatrical – jazz, classical, or whatever reflects the era I’d or dance style.
What about African dance though? Would a pre-recorded track on a CD work as well? Considering the Purcell Room’s interior was designed for acoustic superiority for classical music performances, a selection of bongos, drums and xylophones was sure to sound incredible.
Dance Encounters was an evening consisting of two feature length performances, both with Nii Tagoe’s company, Frititi (the Akan word for ‘ancient’), that consists of a band of four musicians and five dancers.
Frititi’s act, A Taste opened to the musicians walking onto the stage chanting African folk songs before taking their seats at their respective instrument. The Fontonfrom, an elongated bongo from Benin that leans upon an easel, was the basis to the music. The sheer size of it meant the drum skin had to be hammered in before each performance (subtly blending each strike as a beat to the music), which was much needed as it also got a thrashing in every act!
Thrashing was the best part of the night, the loud music keeping the rhythm steady and the energy high. In terms of the live music you see on stage, possibly nothing compares to the Nii and company’s drumming, which would have made for some very noisy rehearsals!
Frititi dancers joined the men on stage in the second number. While their clothing was less tribal, their movements were extentuated by their loose dresses. This wasn’t just traditional dancing but a celebration of free movement, sometimes to the rhythm set by the drums, sometimes on the off-count, it didn’t matter.
The third number saw one of the musicians step out of his role as drummer and into a witchdoctor-like costume, his face smeared in chalk wearing a straw skirt, billowing out of his costume with each of his movements.
The second half of the show was a collaboration between the Frititi musicians and Adiaspora Collective, the collaboration between Vicki Igbokwe of Uchenna Dance and Alesandra Seutin of Vocab Dance, and created in no less than four days, was a feat unimaginable considering the tight deadline and how clean and rehearsed the performance looked.
Recontre (an encounter) was the latest feature performance from ADiaspora since Frusted (we discussed Frusted on our blog in May for Breakin’ Convention), blending contemporary, African and waacking elements together to create an eclectic mix of movements.
It opened to the dancers entering the stage one by one, leering at each other as they moved past one another. Breaking off one by one, each took it in turns to leer at the main dancer. If there’s one thing ADiaspora can bring across to the audience it’s showing tension.
While Frititi’s dancers danced freely to the music, ADiaspora evidently emphasised musicality, hitting percussion beats with some speedy footwork to match. One of the highlights of their performance was an interlude in the music to use syncopated vocals as the dancers struck different vogue poses, drawing close comparisons between African rythms and house music.
What I saw at Dance Encounters was both enlightening (Frititi) and also boundary pushing (ADiaspora) as two companies collaborated to create something in such a short space of time and make it look polished. Frititi’s energy was amazing, the music soulful and deep, while its matching with a fusion style of dance worked so well, with credit due to both companies for collaborating to well.
ADiaspora’s Frusted returns with a run at the Southbank Centre on 11 October.