Established in 2016, Ujima Dance Theatre explores human rights, heritage, and social change through dance. An Afternoon of Dance offered an inspiring take on interconnection—both artistic and human—at the individual, community, and global levels. The matinee’s five dances spanned the globe to reflect the company’s particular interest in international perspectives.
Women’s struggle and triumph
The first was an excerpt from Women’s Voices, a dance of female struggle and triumph set to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Choreography by company founder Shana El combined elements of forms of dance from around the world, including ballet and African forms. Aliyah Anderson, Michaela Clovis, and Nia Simmons repeatedly spun in chaine-like turns, then performed exaggerated steps with high knees. The dancers took turns tugging at one another’s waists, as if to restrain their companion or to help center her. A recurrent gesture of fists pounding on palms evoked a demand for justice, and Women’s Voices ended by pairing this with an image of offering or beseeching as dancers extended their arms to the audience, palms up.
Unity and Sinte
This heartfelt dance was followed by Unity, an uplifting work set to music from the Jackson family. The smiles on the dancers’ faces, like the rainbow tie-dye tunics they wore, showed genuine joy. Those bell-sleeved costumes fit well with the retro feel of the dance, which borrowed moves from disco and social dancing. Anderson, Clovis, and Simmons brought to mind the iconic studio dancers on Soul Train, alongside the thoughtfulness and artistry of El’s choreography. Variations in tempo, formation, and synchronicity used the space creatively, kept dances interesting, and created the illusion of more performers on stage—strengths evident in all the dances El created for this program.
Next, the same trio of performers danced Sinte, a piece by guest choreographer J Bogan El, named for a traditional dance marking important events including the initiation of young adults. Sinte was accompanied by live drumming from Latif Ezekiel, and the dancers wore black-and-white costumes with patterns reminiscent of mudcloth. Sinte captured interdependence as the trio alternated between moving together and dancing individually. When one of the performers danced alone, the others stepped to the sides of the stage, but kept moving in a way that suggested both honoring and supporting the woman in the spotlight. I saw elements of African dance styles, including polyrhythmic features, like arms that waved overhead as feet stepped forward and back.
The dance after this was completely different: a solo by collaborating artist Sina Tafazoli, an expert in Butoh. This avant-garde movement style from mid-20th-century Japan resists categorization, even description. It rejects Western modes of expression to create an alternate aesthetic for engaging with the taboo, the grotesque, and the absurd. Tafazoli’s Metamorphosis embodied all three in the program’s most unusual and challenging work. Both the pace and the movement were slower than the other dances, more like the contemplativeness of tai chi than the energy of contemporary American dance. Tafazoli’s face formed expressions of delight, pain, fear, and confusion, which often seemed to respond to the body itself, with movements seeming to ask questions like, “Whose hands are these?”
Looking forward to more
An Afternoon of Dance returned to Shana El’s distinctive style in the closing dance, In the Spirit of Ogun. Named for the Yoruba god, this is Ujima Dance Theatre’s signature piece. Chopping motions by the dancers and music by Mickey Hart together suggested Ogun’s might. That power might be fearsome, but perhaps only the wicked need worry: as El explained, Ogun fights for justice. Simmons was a standout here, bringing grace and power to demanding and complex movements as she reached out and up, then drew her body inward.
This was my first time seeing Ujima Dance Theatre and my first visit to Inspire Art Space, a modern and comfortable studio on Ridge Avenue in Fairmount. I left inspired by the connections this company promotes—among dancers, styles of dance, music, and nations—and eager to see more from this company during the Fringe Festival in September.
What, When, Where
An Afternoon of Dance. Choreography by Shana El, J Bogan El, and Sina Tafazoli. Ujima Dance Theatre; presented as part of the 2019 SoLow Fest. June 23, 2019, at Inspire Art Space, 1646 Ridge Avenue, Philadelphia. (267) 882-3799 or udancetheatrestudio.com.