KanKouran West African Dance Company’s 36th annual concert at Lisner Auditorium in August opened with a simple message: “Welcome family!”
Eurica Huggins, the company’s public relations director, greeted the auditorium filled with more than 500 fans and supporters dressed in colorful and authentic African apparel, who applauded and then settled into their seats to enjoy the much-anticipated production of one of the nation’s leading cultural performance groups.
International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) President Denise Saunders dedicated the concert to Dr. Sherrill Berryman-Johnson, who died in 2010. An ADACI altar with Berryman-Johnson’s photograph illuminated the stage.
A Fulbright Scholar, Berryman-Johnson pioneered the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance among historically Black colleges and universities by founding Howard University’s dance arts program in 1991. She established HU’s Summer Dance Intensive and Legendary Dance Artist Master Series and served as IABD chair.
A video followed showing her dancing Dunham technique in a flowing floor-length dress. KanKouran co-founder Assane Konte, in Mandingo warrior regalia, danced Djalidon.
Evidence Dance Company Director Ronald K. Brown wed African dance with contemporary choreography. Similarities between West African dance, Dunham technique and contemporary dance revealed themselves.
The screen then rose as Dianne Reeves’ “Testify” played: “In time God reveals all things … I just wanna testify.” KanKouran dancers’ brushing footwork echoed Assane M’Baye’s drum riffs. Howard dance majors Alex Clark, Rayven Leak and Tamiea Anderson performed Johnson’s signature choreography. Bridges, body rolls and sustained tension depicted lyrics: “When I think of the danger…”
KanKouran danced Djinafoli, the dance of the ancestors. Arms reached back to front, falling across the body. Visually dancers scooped water and baptized themselves. Heavy bodies — seeming to almost fall — danced a story of overcoming.
“Oh Freedom,” sang by Jane Medley-Brown, opened “Going Back Home.” Jamie Robinson, Lyric Hunte, Mandisa Spruell and Simone Eddings of KanKouran’s Children’s Company reverently carried candles across stage to Johnson’s altar. Choreography symbolized the four little girls killed in the 1963 Alabama church bombing. The audience’s riveted quiet said they recognized spirituality symbolized by little children dressed in communion white carrying light to an ancestor’s altar.
As adult dancers took positions, Nina Simone’s “I’m Going Back Home” laid down steady tambourine, gospel piano, and swinging brass sections. KanKouran swung choreography like somebody said it was OK to jitterbug in church! Children dancers projected showmanship down to their gloved jazz fingers. Church dresses, can’t-see-around hats, shirts and ties, and fascinators layered theme.
A musical interlude mellowed the mood. Amoadou Kouyate, a 150th-generation Manding Diali, played the 21-stringed Kora. Assane M’Baye, Malari Moore, Baba Joseph Ngwa and Sanu Basu revved up energy on drums. Four-year-old Mady Kouyate received thunderous applause for his solos.
Ronald K. Brown’s “Shango” completed the spiritual trinity. “Tam” Terrance Thomas led the bata rhythm characterized by staccato slaps and rolling tones replicating lightning and thunder. Cathy Sonko danced the embodiment of Shango. Whitney V. Hunter, the first male graduate in Howard’s dance major program, also danced the part of Shango. Dancers twirled and pulsated with crossed footwork. Hands symbolized warfare.
Again KanKouran excelled in complementary staging. Red lighting, a silver-studded blue crown, a yellow feather fan, ceremonial brooms, machetes and a Nine Colors skirt, along with skirt colors, imparted authenticity. Afi Lydia’s voice enchanted ears with a Trinidad Spiritual Baptist invitation song. The closing intermission curtain bared knowledge of Orisha appearance.
The children opened act two with traditional West African dances set to Caribbean music. Dance hall music faded, drums began and children bounced into Mandiani, a celebratory dance. Four-year-old Enoabasi Essien made every child in attendance want to train with KanKouran, so they, too, could be onstage! The Senior Company’s Mandiani followed. A slow song, graceful arms, and sliding steps belied the forthcoming energy. Dancers effortlessly performed turning jumps, traveling jumps, and jumps with extended-leg landings. Applause erupted all over the auditorium.
Community class dancers and the Senior Company closed the concert with Sabar. Medoune Yacine Gueye led the musical accompaniment of Senegal’s national dance. Dancers’ arms resembled ocean fishermen pulling nets. The dance had a swaying, rocking, buoyant quality.
Although the stage needed microphones so that music could project throughout the theater, an attendee summarized the concert’s overall entertainment: “I would describe KanKouran as refined, elegant, different from the younger groups I’ve seen at BAM.”
An Atlanta visitor said, “I liked so much. The opening video set the tone. Dignified — that’s how the show felt, dignified.”