Some cultures instinctively recognize that the best time to communicate with the dead is in the dead of night under a full moon. The Dance Theatre of Harlem's latest Washington premiere, Geoffrey Holder's "Banda," evokes this wisdom in a voodoo funeral rite held in a firefly-studded cemetery. The sensuality of "Banda" in its linkage of the funereal with the erotic is almost shocking after the ice of the Petipa and Balanchine works on the same program. Upon reflection, however, the rightness of this conception seems inevitable. Holder forces the recognition of just how closely sex and death are intertwined.
Performed last night at the Kennedy Center, "Banda" depicts a voodoo rite in which mourners and priests attempt to console a young mother who has just lost an infant. The mourners whirl and stamp about the tiny coffin, attempting to lure the mother into their ritual, but she remains grief stricken. She is left alone in the cemetery for Baron Samedi, a voodoo god of death and eroticism, to console her in his own way. Donald Williams' Baron Samedi, in white face, top hat and tails, is a tour de force of the erotic. He struts and thrusts, gyrating his hips and grinding his thighs, until he seduces the mother to her own death.
The choreography is characterized by spectacular exits and entrances, in which dancers whip on and off the stage by running on their knees or leaping onto their hands. The Baron enters backwards, skittering on his toes, lightly tapping his cane.
A celebration of the company's black heritage, "Banda" represents the third strain, along with the neoclassic and dance-dramatic, of DTH's repertory. It is a wonderfully appropriate dance for DTH. In movement vocabulary as well as in symbolism, the dance evokes the meeting of the African and European cultures: the Christian cross is omnipresent in the voodoo rite, and balletic leaps are interspersed within the pelvic thrusting and terre a terre movement of the Caribbean folk dances.