A warm embrace on a cold, damp night was COBA (Collective of Black Artists)’s gift to Toronto audiences with their recent show, “Middle Passage”, at Harbourfront’s Premiere Dance Theatre. The combination of dance, drama and most especially, drumming, was deeply satisfying on some, if not all, levels.
Loosely constructed around ideas and themes reflecting the history of the black Diaspora, “Middle Passage” opened with an older work. “Transe” was choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus in 2002 in celebration of Haiti’s 200 years of independence. The piece begins with a procession of dancers and musicians through the audience. The movement remains ritualistic and rather simple; then grows in intensity as a kind of “possession” takes over. The references to voodoo and folkloric themes layered by centuries of cultural influences originating in Africa and in Haiti are fascinating to watch. But it was the incredible fluidity of the dancers’ arms that caught my attention in this piece. The combination of grounding in the core and lower body with the incredible lightness in the arms and hands is a compelling technical trademark of the women in this company.
A musical interlude by a wickedly talented group of drummers and singers gave way to a much less successful solo choreographed by Eddison Lindsay and danced, the evening I saw it, by Sarah Anthony. A dignified though sometimes cheeky dance for a woman wearing an eighteenth century dress and mask, “Mas-K” plays with ideas of identity and masquerade. The work seems overly contained, almost stilted, though this effect may be partly from context and contrast with the other fully cast and more exuberant works on the evening’s program.
“Djembefola” (a word applied to the djembe player who embodies the essence of this traditional Malinke drum), another premiere, saw the introduction of COBA’s guest artist, Senegalese djembe master Alassane Sarr. As Sarr mimes the actions of stringing his drum behind a scrim, a group of “drum spirits” assemble a human djembe (Eddison Lindsay) with long cords. The ensuing dance makes the point that not everyone who plays a djembe can be a djembefola — it takes a special talent. (The djembefola is metaphorically danced here by apprentice Jase Cozmic).
Sarr plays an increasingly significant role as the evening proceeds. He orchestrates and leads a sizzling musical segment called “Sabar”. Sarr soon gets the audience clapping along to the complex rhythms he concocts with the four other drummers onstage. One of them, nine-year old N’dere Nimon Headley-Lindsay, plays a smaller version of Sarr’s Senegalese Sabar drum and keeps up perfectly with his adult colleagues. The interlude segues into the final work on the program, “Mbayan”.
This work, based on traditional dances, chants and drum rhythms from West Africa, was choreographed by Sarr and features the entire company in a celebration of community spirit. Program notes describe “Mbayan” as a harvest dance. The dancers parade onstage and off with sheaves and bowls before breaking out into an athletic display of ensemble and solo dancing. In much the same way as a contemporary break dance circle now does, the dancers try to outdo each other in energy, humour, attitude and technique, and some of the resulting performances sizzle. This company is nothing if not watchable — the intense Charmaine Headley and the saucy yet stately Debbie Nicholls were standouts for me. Virtuosity is not the point here however. Though clearly not without its stars, COBA is much more about community and working together as a group. By the end of the program, I was thoroughly reminded of the strength to be found in this idea.