It was mighty blustery out Tuesday night. Yet inside the Starfields of Astraea -- that chic 24-hour bookstore-coffee bar-literary salon across from Western Plaza -- warmth and merriment prevailed. In the tiny, circular performance space carved out of the store's center, Cameroonian dancer Paul Kengmo and musician Joseph Ngwa thoroughly charmed a substantial audience with an hour's worth of banter, musicmaking on all manner of whistles, drums and bells, and traditional movement at once virtuosic and easygoing.
Kengmo, one of his country's most revered teachers and performers, was raised in a world of griots -- guardians of village lore -- and is now one himself. Though he left his rural beginnings to dance in the National Ballet of Cameroon, has since founded his own dance company and school, and organized the first international dance festival in Cameroon, this lithe, radiant fellow retains a fresh, irresistibly innocent quality onstage. He's also absolutely clear about what he's doing, both as a dancer and an actor.
In "Atchuet Dance," he summarizes the farmer's life by the arcs and dips that his scythe makes in space, by the swivel and stomp of his foot against the earth, by the sweat that beads up on his forehead. When he tells you to look over at the plants, or up at the moon during "Mbrooh" ("Moonshine Dance"), you comply. His voice, his impeccable focus make them real. And merely by touching the ground, kissing his palm and extending it slowly, he conjures up an imaginary lover, who is probably just as smitten with his symmetrical quickstep and quirkily bobbling head as we are.
Kengmo and the pixieish Ngwa -- a mean drum-and-xylophone man -- clearly delight in turning passive American audiences into willing accomplices. By the end of this brief program, they had people shimmying, kicking, playing instruments and clapping like fiends.
According to his press material, Kengmo is in this country for an extended stay. Here's hoping he crops up in other local venues soon.