Step Afrika’s performance in ‘Green is the New Black’ lights up the stage — literally


Dancers of Step Afrika in "Green is the New Black." (Jati Lindsay)
Dance critic

Followers of Step Afrika know that the body-slapping, heavy-stomping group has energy to burn. On Thursday, its percussive power was put to the test. Just how much wattage could its 10 dancers crank out?

Enough to light up the stage, as was proved in “Green is the New Black,” a dance-theater piece that merged the art of stepping with piezoelectric technology. Essentially, that’s a way to harvest the energy of human movement, with sensors on a specially engineered floor surface that capture the force of the dancing. The dance steps produce an electrical charge, which is harvested by the piezoelectric surface, and presto-bingo, it’s converted into power that fires the lights above the stage. The stronger the dancing, the stronger the power.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life, coming in Nov. 2015. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and after logging time in opera houses, black boxes, and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

With me so far? Okay, enough physics. Glossing over the particulars, let’s just say that the stepping was amazing and so were the flashes of light slicing through Catholic University’s Hartke Theater. It was a simple and elegant equation.

“Somewhere between science and possibility” is how one of the dancers phrased it — spoken word was part of the show — and that’s an apt description. “Green is the New Black,” which continues through Sunday, features what Step Afrika’s founder and executive director, C. Brian Willams, called the first energy-harvesting step platform. That’s the science part, and it worked.

As for the artistic possibilities, the troupe needs a little more R&D. The show is episodic, with monologues alternating with stepping — that is to say, the rhythmic, full-bodied dance form practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities. But the momentum was too easily dropped as one section ended and another began.

“Green is the New Black,” presented by Dance Place and Washington Performing Arts, is a work in progress, part of a three-year project to explore various uses of power: the power of words, of conservation and green technology, of the human mind and body. Sounds well-intentioned, and that is the effect of this show: earnest and a little didactic. The creators need to think about their audience. Is this a science-is-fun lesson for young folks or a more sophisticated experimental work for adults? The tone wavered.

In keeping with the green theme, the set made use of recycled goods. The backdrop was sewn from old T-shirts, and the stage was strewn with milk crates, boxes, an old sink, and spray-painted signs urging us to reduce consumption and “recognize your power.” It was good to see a dance performance with set design, but this felt a bit like “Sesame Street.”

The staying power was in the kinetic output, with or without the special platform; just boots, bodies and a whole lot of sound. At the end, the dancers swept the audience into a call-and-response clap-along, completing the electrical circuit that had started 90 minutes before. For that show of communal power, no technology was needed.

Step Afrika performs “Green is the New Black”

Through Sunday
at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. www.stepafrika.org/performances/
washington-dc
.

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