It takes a bold arts organization to both declare itself dysfunctional and ask for money in the same curtain speech, but that’s what Eurica Huggins-Axum of KanKouran West African Dance Company did Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium.
“KanKouran is a village,” Huggins-Axum said, after pointing out there were still bills to pay. “We can be a little dysfunctional at times, but this is our village.”
The troupe then went on to demonstrate that when it comes to Senegalese dancing and percussion, they very much have their act together. The concert capped off KanKouran’s 31st annual conference, held over Labor Day weekend and attracting guest artists from around the country. It’s a family-friendly, festive affair, although, regrettably, most of the children in the audience behaved better than some of the adults. (Cellphone taping, rampant texting and patrons were a serious distraction where I was sitting.)
For those who did sit down and put away the gadgets, there was plenty of riveting spectacle to watch. For starters, KanKouran has a much higher cute-kid quotient than the average “Nutcracker.” The show opened with a junior drumming troupe featuring boys so small they had to be lifted onto the platform at the rear of the stage. Later in Act I, an ensemble of preschool, school-age and teenage girls wearing silver-swirled dresses counted beats, did forward rolls and kept the audience saying “Aww.”
But the main draw at KanKouran is the senior company, which features about a dozen of the most practiced female African dancers in the region. In Act I, the women looked stunning in formal red floor-length skirts, with high slits that allowed them to kick their knees up and out, swiveling their hips through what looked like ligament-tearing arcs. Act II found them wearing turquoise and yellow, now emphasizing their arm movements, elbow thrusts alternating with elongated hand gestures.
Choreographer Assane Konte planned clever entrances and exits for the women and the much smaller men’s ensemble, and watching the two genders alternate — working the stage with diagonal struts and pivot turns as one group gave way to another — was one of the evening’s great pleasures. Konte also works closely with his percussion ensemble, and this year held the number of percussionists down to an aurally manageable dozen. He also kept the showboating djembe drum soloists upfront and short. Perhaps this was in response to past concerns about finding a balance between the movers and the shakers onstage. Said the women behind me once those solos were through: “I can’t wait until they start dancing.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.