Odadaa!, a dance company from Ghana, was called the Yakub Addy Ensemble yesterday in a review. Addy leads the company.
Despite some reverses, "Black Dance '84"--the second annual Washington festival of Afro-American dance, held this year at Howard University's attractive Cramton Auditorium -- proved once again an extraordinary affirmation of cultural vitality.
Lamentably, there's been something of a downturn in fortune over the past year both for the festival and its founder-organizer, Melvin Deal, director of the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, which marked its 23rd anniversary with the '84 festival. The first festival, a year ago at the Takoma Theatre, presented troupes from Ghana and four major American cities, as well as seven Washington companies, in two matinees and two evenings.
This year, the programs were cut back to a single matinee and evening Saturday, and cancellations by scheduled groups from Philadelphia and Chicago left the evening lineup with four companies, all from Washington. In addition, massive defections in personnel from the African Heritage troupe obliged Deal to start pretty much from scratch in assembling a company and a program for this year's event.
Given this background, the evening was as much a testimonial to the quality of Deal's commitment as it was to the art form he has so nobly cultivated across two decades.
Deal's solution for the depletion of African Heritage forces was, typically, a community enterprise. He called it the Big Ladies Project; begun last spring, it was an effort to "help give big ladies an additional positive perspective on their largeness." Some 30 candidates from 21 to 60 years in age were recruited and trained, then cast by Deal in a revival of his "Efik-Ibibio Suite" for the festival finale.
Aptly enough, it's a depiction in dance of a graduation ceremony for "fattened virgin maidens eligible for marriage" -- four women fresh from the tribal "Fattening Room" (the dance derives from peoples of southeastern Nigeria). Whatever the performance may have lacked in terpsichorean polish and visual finesse, compared with African Heritage stagings of the past, it was more than amply compensated for by a geniality of spectacle, a warmth of spirit, and awesome pluck on the part of the dancers.
Leading off the evening was the Memory of African Culture troupe, led by Djimo Kouyate, who began by accompanying himself and three women with a mellow, beatific solo on the Kora, a 21-string African lute. Kouyate switched to a conga drum, as the female trio presented the engaging "Diawoura," a Senegalese challenge dance. Next up was the KanKouran Dance Company, directed by dancer-choreographer Assane Konte and featuring master drummer Abdou Kounta, in a handsomely produced harvest dance ("Akon-kon") with an emphasis on theatricality and technical flash -- Konte's solo included barrel-turns, kazatskis and even a few breakdance spins.
The remaining troupe was the Yakub Addy Ensemble, which alternated drumming and chanting led by a lively, sweet-voiced tenor, with fleet, buoyant dance breaks by one male and two female virtuoso soloists.