Review: Afro-Colombian Dance Awakens Joyce Theater

The movement is small, a little twist in the hips. But like a jolt before an earthquake, it signals bigger changes. Soon the drums kic...

The movement is small, a little twist in the hips. But like a jolt before an earthquake, it signals bigger changes. Soon the drums kick in and the dancers explode into percussive action – shaking, rippling, thumping the air with the force of those drums.

Wonderful moments like this are repeated in “Accommodating Lie”, the hour-long work that Afro-Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro brought for its return to the Joyce Theater this week. And these outbursts of live drumming and dancing reawaken a scene that the Omicron Wave had kept dark and quiet since late December.

But as the title of the work suggests, Rafael Palacios, director and choreographer of the company, has more in mind. A program note characterizes the work as a “powerful call for awareness” that seeks to dismantle stereotypes “on and around” the black body, addressing the sexualization and exoticization of people of African descent across centuries of slavery and racism.

Several times the dancers line up on the stage and a singer starts shouting the prizes in Spanish. It’s an auction, linking this performance, this exhibition of black bodies, to the slave trade.

Yet the auctioneer’s voice, nestled in drums, is so quiet and unemphasized that it could almost be missed. This is the characteristic of this production, whose message and flow are curiously muffled.

Much of the symbolism comes from the stage design (by Álvaro Tobón), beginning with the curtain at the back of the stage, made of straw like that used in the skirts once worn by enslaved Afro-Colombians. Through this barrier, the dancers move in and out, the tangled strands sometimes clinging to their bodies. Some of them also wear these skirts, pulling the string to show how irritated they are. Or a dancer may trail more rope, like a leash held by other performers who wrap it around themselves like a pole.

The dance unfolds in a series of episodes, slow and drawn out before they break out, accompanied by as much quiet flute, lullabies and tic tac marimba as there are percussion drums. A man who appears to be fighting invisible adversaries roars and collapses. Another man lifts him up, in a cradle portage in the form of a pietà, then puts him down before helping him up with a convulsive dance, mouldering and resurrecting.

Even such swells of intensity, however, feel a bit underpowered or flickering. Even though the strength of the African diasporic connection to the drum is heightened with a hint of hip-hop, something feels hesitant, perhaps held back. Could that be part of the message, a refusal to go all out for an audience?

Or is it just Sankofa’s style? The work has a great finish. The full cast of eight dancers advance in ranks, throwing their most emancipatory steps, driven by the drum, then watching the audience from the top of the stage. The auctioneer starts again, now with higher prices. Go once. Go twice. Sold.

Sankofa Danzafro

Until Sunday at the Joyce Theatre,

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Review: Afro-Colombian Dance Awakens Joyce Theater
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