When the dancers of Ezibu Muntu African Dance Theatre first stepped on the stage at Dance Place on Saturday, their appearance wasn’t so much an entrance as an explosion. They bounded out of the wings with consecutive high jumps, snapping their necks backward in midair and sending their piles of braids or curls into beautiful, sweeping arcs.
It was a strong start to the DanceAfrica festival, an annual celebration of the dance, music and culture of Africa that ended Sunday.
The rest of the troupe’s performance, however, wasn’t quite as airtight. The dancers at times seemed overwhelmed by the musical score, rather than propelled by it. As the onstage percussion ensemble hammered out increasingly quick, intricate rhythms, the performers seemed unable to keep up with both the speed and the intensity of the accompaniment. The music begged for the dancing to swell to a climax that never came.
After intermission, a different troupe, Umkhathi Theatre Works, took the stage and delivered a performance that was a bit less fiery but more consistently powerful.
The company, visiting from Zimbabwe, began with “Muchongoyo,” a dance traditionally performed just before a warrior takes off for battle or after he has come home victorious. The male dancers darted across stage wielding sticks high overhead, occasionally waging mock battles with one another. Their knees hiked high toward their chests and their heels battered the floor with an urgency and vigor that perfectly befit a fighter hopped up on adrenaline.
Another work, “Shangara,” featured Umkhathi’s versatile female dancers. It got off to a breezy start, with the women swaying gently to the sound of their own singing. Soon, drums kicked in, and their relaxed rocking gave way to fast-shaking hips that demonstrated their capacity for wild abandon. Later, they reined in that energy for a display of remarkable control: Each woman balanced a woven basket atop her head while her feet scampered feverishly underneath her.
In their finale, Umkhathi’s men showed off some serious athleticism. Balanced on their hands, they scissored their legs into a rapid-fire series of hard-to-hit positions. It not only proved their virtuosity, it reinforced the finely tuned musicality that this group exhibited throughout its part of the program.