KanKouran West African Dance Company celebrates the life of a friend

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010

Typically, a KanKouran performance is a high-octane affair. The West African dance company specializes in a mix of dancing, live drumming and contagious communal spirit that can turn its appearances into a roof-rattling rumpus. Saturday's 27th annual concert, performed at Lisner Auditorium, had to compete with a rocking outdoor jam down the block for George Washington University students, but even at a blow-out-the-amps volume, the back-to-school fete couldn't top the scene on the Lisner stage.

Yet this show took a different form from the usual KanKouran display. Assane Konte, founder and director of the long-standing local troupe, dedicated the concert to Sherrill Berryman Johnson, the respected Howard University dance professor and Konte's mentor, who died in March. An altar in her honor occupied an upstage corner, festooned in colored lights and candles. Speakers extolled Johnson's dedication to African dance and described the evening as an effort to usher her spirit from these shores through the Caribbean and on to her ancestors in Africa.

Praise dancing by young women in white and an ensemble section in a religious revival mode was followed by the kind of impassioned and physically explosive dancing KanKouran does best, buttressed by the drumming of Shaka Holmes and Pape N'Doye and a host of company drummers. Was it Johnson's summoned spirit that whipped up a special fury? The heated displays of stamping feet and windmilling arms were sharper Saturday than in recent memory, the body in syncopation with itself as head, arms, legs and heels revolved and pulsed to different rhythms.

There was an especially touching moment when a video projection brought back Johnson, in cascading white robes, dancing in an unspecified performance with two men, one in tribal attire, one in shirt and trousers. After a few moments, Konte emerged on the stage below the screen to dance the same steps along with his video counterparts, making a foursome across media and across time.

The music took a place of prominence all evening, a feast of sensations, atmospheres and colors. Chief among the guest musicians was D.C. native Amadou Kouyate, playing his 21-string kora, a long-necked harp-lute with a magnificent calabash belly that Kouyate caressed and tickled with such poetic sensitivity you could almost feel the breezes of the African coast and the fertile growth of the rain forests in his phrasing. Johnson's spirit was not the only one moved that night.

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