This year DanceAfrica’s 44th annual celebration, the nation’s largest festival of African and African Diasporic dance, music and culture, returns Memorial Day weekend with new content reimagined for the digital space.
This year’s festival draws its inspiration from Haitian folkloric traditions, the Iwa, deities of Haitian Vodou where dance is a way to remain connected to the ancestors and the desire to give praise and thanks, says DanceAfrica Artistic Director Baba Abdel R. Salaam. Saturday, May 29 at 7 p.m. ET, the online celebration pays homage to the ancestral energy of Haiti with the presentation of dance companies from Haiti and around the United States under the thematic umbrella “Vwa zanset yo: y’ap pale, n’ap danse!” in Haitian Creole which means “Ancestral voices: they speak, we dance!”
While the focus is primarily festive there is also a need, Salaam says, to correct any remnants of the negative connotations linked to the portrayal of Africa spiritual and ritual traditions. “A lot of times in our culture when we hear the term Vodou and those negative connotations come up,” Salaam says, “that is one of the reasons I did the ‘Life and Legend of Marie Laveau’ back in the 1980s. While I am not a practitioner, it was my artistic response to Hollywood’s portrayal of these traditions as dark.”
“Also, in my never-ending search to make a point about the importance of these African Diasporic traditions, I wanted to illustrate a positive way to look at Vodou, to look at the dances, the music, and traditions that honor the forces of nature and our ancestors. For many people this is a way of life that is exalted in song, dance, and ritual and it’s something that happens throughout the Diaspora and there are different countries in the continent as well as here that practice this particular tradition,” Salaam adds. In many ways Salaam echoes sentiments of dance pioneer Katherine Dunham who revered Haitian culture and shared it with an international dance audience. For Dunham, dance was more than a technique, it was a social act. The same seems to be true for Salaam.
With his noble mission in mind, Salaam commissioned pieces from four dance companies—HaitiDansCo, in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, and three American-based companies, Àṣẹ Dance Theatre Collective and The Fritzation Experience in Brooklyn, and Rara Tou Limen in Oakland. Each company will represent a particular dance/deity and its associated element and, with a feature that highlights the positive aspects of virtual presentations, rather than taking place on a proscenium-arch stage, the performances will take place in a different setting based on those aspects of the ritual. Salaam says that HaitiDansCo’s Artistic Director Dieufel Lamisere was recommended to him by one of his “dance daughters,” a principal dancer who has belonged to Salaam’s own dance company, the critically acclaimed Forces of Nature, for many years. Naturally given COVID restrictions he reached out to Lamisere virtually and received compelling videos of the company’s performances. “It looked like a wonderful way to show how the tradition has been celebrated and is still celebrated in Haiti,” Salaam explains.
Both Ase Dance Theatre Collective and The Fritzation Experience, based in Brooklyn, and Rara Tou Limen, based in Oakland, California, were closer to home but the entire DanceAfrica program will be presented virtually. The virtual program features four dance premieres inspired by the characteristics of the lwa, spirits of Haitian Vodou. Each company pays tribute to a different lwa through traditional dance—Yanvalou Maskawon, Banda, Nago, Petro and Parigol. The dances manifest the lwa, bringing messages of faith, hope and healing, staying connected to the ancestors, and giving praise and gratitude. The performances embrace Haitian culture’s strength, healing and resilience through deep, rich, vibrant-colored scenes and landscapes depicting traditional dance movements, costumes, masks, headwear and elements from the Vodou tradition.
Also performing is the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble, an annual favorite and a powerful symbol of youth involvement in preserving African heritage. Many long-held traditions are reimagined for the 44th celebration, including a virtual Libation Ceremony and a Procession of the Elders that crosses the country, featuring elders from seven presenting DanceAfrica cities.
Created in 1977 under Founding Elder Chuck Davis’ artistic direction, DanceAfrica has evolved into a highly anticipated and high-spirited Memorial Day weekend tradition that brings together the entire community. This year the tradition is reimagined as a virtual celebration allowing audiences from around the world the opportunity to be a part of the DanceAfrica community and experience new content designed and directed for screen.
Don’t think that just because DanceAfrica is virtual that it would omit one of the major attractions—the DanceAfrica Bazaar. It has gone virtual and will include over 20 vendors featuring crafts, food, and fashion (currently live on BAM.org); Haitian movement master classes for families and adults; and a choreographers’ conversation on May 19 (see below). The Festival will also include DanceAfrica public visual art exhibition “A Return: Liberation as Power” (May 24-31); the FilmAfrica series in partnership with African Film Festival, Inc (May 28-June 3); and a late-night dance party with music by DJ Hard Hittin Harry (May 29).
Tickets for DanceAfrica 2021 dance performance go on sale Thursday, May 13 at 12 p.m./noon ET, at BAM.org/danceafrica.