The UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance. showcase took place virtually on Feb. 26, 2022.
UNGANISHA, which means “connect” in Swahili, is a dance showcase presented by Calgary-based Woezo Africa. This year’s online presentation was a reimagining of the 2019 production, exploring nine African diasporic dance forms, sharing the histories of each and grounding them in a modern presentation. Each piece tells a story of lovers (played by Chris Clare and Keisha Cheesman) who meet each other in many different ways.
The first dance style presented is Afro-Cuban. This piece, entitled Mandla and Kaya (He/She), features an opening performed by Clare and Cheesman in which two lovers are fleeing war; she is leaving him behind. The opening narrative sets the feelings for the piece, bringing up emotions of fear and exploitation that are often at the roots of Afro-Cuban dance, a style created by enslaved African people who were forced to work the sugar plantations in Cuba. Dancers Alexis Mora Blanco and Cristina Rosati then perform a traditional presentation of Afro-Cuban dance in a flurry of colour, with large dramatic movements.
We then move on to hip hop. This scene opens on a classroom with three students (Clare, Tasha Korney and Jared Tobias Herring), and a teacher introduces us to the new student (Cheesman) via voice-over. The lovers meet as students in high school, and soon the students are demonstrating their dance skills, or lack thereof, in hip hop. The movement is sharp and full of spirit. The style of dance has roots in Black power and disrupting Eurocentricity. With choreography by Clare, this scene is the most fun and has the most interaction and narrative onstage.
The showcase moves on to jazz and how it finds its African roots in New Orleans. Dance is a response to daily life. This piece, entitled Vonda Paul, opens on Cheesman as a Jamaican immigrant who encounters barriers to finding a job and a place to live. She meets a kind stranger (Clare) on a bench and they share a sandwich. Dancers Vanessa Padillo, Lisbeth Maidment, Zam Ramirez and Jas Tan Jing Hui then perform jazz dance to music by Michael Bublé. It’s an upbeat piece that contrasts its cheeriness with the characters’ struggles.
Exploring Afro-Caribbean dance next, we’re made to understand how the basis of this style is in escapism, an act of resistance from oppression. This work’s plot centres on the Black cowboy John Ware and the moments before his wife, Mildred, gives birth to their first child. A group of dancers take to the stage in red and white and their movements are all staccato. The star dancer has a full skirt in green and her movements are mesmerizing.
Next comes tap, which is said to be the drumming of the earth, the heartbeat of a people, a style that originated among enslaved Africans. The work features Clare and Cheesman meeting in a beginner tap class and moves into a sophisticated tap dance performance, complete with bow ties and top hats.
Up next is samba, described as having roots in slavery in Brazil. The dancing in this portion of the showcase is vibrant and lively, fast and fun.
Capoeira is a Creole fighting technique comprised of spinning kicks and cartwheels as a means of escape. This story features Clare and Cheesman in the middle of war, hiding out. When he asks her what happened to her companions, she tells him that people happened. It’s an intense narrative and matches the fighting movements of the dancers that follow.
When exploring salsa, the production traces the origins to Nigeria. The dance portion is a swaying of pink and gold, balanced on one side then the other.
The last style they explore is step, which originated among Black coal miners as a way to communicate around white management. This piece ends the production on a poignant note because on Feb. 19th, a Black man, Latjor Tuel, was shot by a Calgary police officer. The dance is rhythm, it is the beat, it is resistance.
UNGANISHA is a much-needed exploration of African diasporic dance forms, whose histories have been largely obscured in modern practice and performance. It is a wonderful way to learn and connect with history.
Dance Media Group strengthens the dance sector through dialogue. Can you help us sustain national, accessible dance coverage? Your contribution supports writers, illustrators, photographers and dancers as they tell their own stories. Dance Media Group is a charitable non-profit organization publishing The Dance Current in print and online.