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Step Afrika!’s ‘Bridgetower Sonata’ and ‘Symphony in Step’: Two masterful works

Step Afrika! is back home in Washington with two new works, “Bridgetower Sonata” and “Symphony in Step.” (Courtesy of Don Napoleon)

Feb. 19, 1790, London. Curious concertgoers flock to Drury Lane Theatre to see an 11-year-old violin prodigy, the son of an African prince. (In actuality, the son of a West Indian servant working for a Hungarian prince, but you know, arts marketers exaggerate.) The concert is well reviewed, and before he is 24, that violinist, George Bridgetower, will return to Europe and give a concert with Beethoven, debuting the composer’s Sonata No. 9 in A.

Nov. 12, 2011, Anchorage. Curious concertgoers flock to the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts to see an African American dance company perform with their hometown orchestra. Two years later, the dance company, Step Afrika!, has returned home to Washington to perform two masterful new works: “Bridgetower Sonata” and “Symphony in Step.” And just as the Times of London praised the groundbreaking violinist, so, too, does this present-day collaboration deserve strong notices. And an audience.

The crackling, well-crafted classical crossover performance is onstage through Sunday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The first half of the show pays homage to Bridgetower, as narrated by Shannan E. Johnson, wearing a bulbous baroque gown on loan from the Shakespeare Theatre. Given that Step Afrika! has many young fans, the story line should be more clear, rather than cherry-picked snippets from reviews and poems (by Rita Dove). But the dancing, particularly the ensemble sequence performed to the presto movement of the Beethoven sonata, has all kinds of clarity. Stepping originated on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities, a percussive fusion of tap, chanting and social dance. This attempt to go classical could go badly, but choreographer Jakari Sherman follows the sonata’s rhythmic threads. Often, the dancers’ feet are synced to the piano’s baseline, while their arms follow flourishes in the violin. Sherman has also asked the dancers to recall years of ballet training. Joe Murchison dons velvet short pants and turns tour jetes, while women in gowns turn out their feet and execute smooth, straight back turns.

The music for “Symphony in Step” was composed by Randall Fleischer, the conductor from Anchorage who concocted this collaboration. The five movements, scored for 15 musicians and four vocalists, are adapted from Step Afrika! classics. The strongest is “Ndlamo,” the company’s hybrid of South African and modern dance, accompanied by African drums and two orchestral percussionists, who add cymbals, marimbas and more. There’s a cascade of rattles and chimes as Danielle Dubois Glover and Michael Alford stalk each other, executing both Zulu high leg kicks and arabesques, until they call it a draw and she leaps into his arms while the musicians watch in awe.

Dove’s poem, “Bridgetower,” bemoans that the violinist’s success never led to “rafts of black kids scratching out scales on matchbox violins.” She’s right. But when “Symphony in Step” ends, with just Sherman and violinist Sarah D’Angelo sharing the stage, at least the spotlight is on his legacy.

Performers from Step Afrika! in composer Randall Fleischer’s “Ke Nako” from Symphony in Step. (Step Afrika!/The Washington Post)

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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