Using art to promote social change is part of Coyaba Dance Theater's mission. "Urban/Bush Stories" honors the late Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti and "Godfather of Soul" James Brown ("Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud") for creating socially conscious music. Dance Place was bursting at the seams Saturday as the 50 or so performers and an overflow audience formed one joyous cry of celebration.
Coyaba travels between Washington and West Africa, living the cultural fluidity that it promotes. It is the offspring of Washington's other large African troupes, such as KanKouran and Wo'se African Dance Theater, with which its founder and artistic director, Sylvia Soumah, was associated. Yet Soumah has her own take on how to use adults and children of all ages to strengthen community through West African drumming and dance performances. She goes beyond the standard reenactments of rites of passage or dramatizations of folk tales to choreograph West African dance into short, plotless pieces that move ensembles (in age sets) quickly on and off the stage.
She is not afraid to pair traditional African drumming with James Brown, as she did in this program. Nor is she averse to fusing African dance with modern dance. This time, for example, she brought in local choreographer Reggie Glass, whose "Kala Kuta," to music by Fela Kuti, incorporated hints of modern dance moves. Coyaba has become an agent of change and represents fluidity within the culture of African-inspired dance troupes.
Choreographically, all six works on Saturday's program (elegantly narrated by Sheena M. Carey) were competent. Like the Guinean opener "Kuku," "Ain't No Side Dish" (choreographed by N. Tenille Redmond to James Brown's "I Got the Feeling" and "Get on the Good Foot") deftly moved groups. All the works were polished, which was quite a feat considering that the dancers included teenagers, pre-teens and toddlers.
Aziz Ahmed, the group's traditional-music adviser, led the drum ensemble (Salim Ajanku, Anthony Holmes Darrin Jones, Romero Wyatt and Menes Yahudah) with confidence and a heavy hand, which is a compliment when it comes to drumming.
The enthusiasm of the evening dispelled any concerns about whether the drum ensemble was exactly together every moment or whether every toddler faced the same way at the same time. Such a performance is like a generator, with performers and viewers producing equal amounts of energy.