Sounds and moves of sub-Saharan Africa
Four troupes, 60 dancers bring traditional, contemporary elements to Zellerbach stage

By Fernando Quintero


Ethnomusicologist, choreographer and composer C.K. Ladzekpo, a lecturer in music, brings together the talents of four African dance companies in “Kusum Africa: A World Premiere Showcase of New African Choreography,” a production coming to the Zellerbach stage and local schools in early March.
Noah Berger photo

20 February 2002 | As his African music ensemble class comes to a clattering climax, distinguished Berkeley ethnomusicologist, choreographer and composer C.K. Ladzekpo gives students a last-minute burst of his infectious energy.

Students of many backgrounds play traditional African drums and percussion instruments as they jerk their shoulders, step and sway to Ladzekpo’s lively dance-drumming direction.

With the same passion and dedication he brings to teaching, Ladzekpo, a member of a renowned family of African musicians and dancers, conceived “Kusum Africa: A World Premiere Showcase of New African Choreography.” The creation — which Cal Performances will present March 1 and 2 at Zellerbach Hall — features 60 artists and four dance companies representing traditions of the Congo, Republic of Guinea and Ghana.

The performance is inspired by historic events of the 1950s, when a group of young people occupied a square in the town of Accra, Ghana, using dance, drum and song to protest British colonialism. To tell this story, “Kusum Africa” adapts traditions of sub-Saharan dance-drumming for modern audiences.

For Ladzekpo, the major challenge in bringing the production to the stage is one that African artists often face when performing in a Western context.

On the stage, African dance is often presented as a cultural performance representing something fixed and “authentic” — “like watching something in an anthropology museum,” says Ladzekpo.

In reality, he notes, African dance-drumming is a living, evolving art form.

“A choreographer can make abstracts from the original to tell a new story,” Ladzekpo says. “I want to bring an understanding to audiences that tradition is not a [stagnant] pool of water. Somewhere, you have to freshen up that pool. I am trying to build a bridge between traditional programming and contemporary African dance forms that express our history and socio-economic situation today — and start talking about the future of African dance.”

Co-presented by the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, “Kusum Africa” is the inaugural work of the center’s African Choreographers Forum, which showcases contemporary dance-drumming in Africa and the African diaspora. Joining Ladzekpo in this historic collaboration are the artistic directors of the National Dance Company of Ghana, Ballet Merveilles de Guinea and Fua Dia Congo.

Ladzekpo and others involved in “Kusum Africa” also plan to demonstrate African dance and music with K-12 students at ten local elementary and middle schools. And 1,800 students in Berkeley and Oakland will attend a special performance of the piece.

Outreach to young people, especially African Americans, carries an added significance during this month’s celebration of black history.

“The third world has a young democracy, and that is represented in the performance,” says Ladzekpo. “Young kids, around ages 10 and 12, will be part of the cast. Students will be seeing their peers. I hope it will inspire them to work hard, maybe even to dance someday at Zellerbach.

“In the classroom,” he says, “I hope to carry the message of the production: that anyone can have their voice heard.”

“Kusum Africa” collaborating artists will hold a panel discussion of traditional and contemporary African choreography from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m, Feb. 22, at 125 Morrison Hall. Members of four participating African dance companies will also offer a public dance workshop Feb. 24 at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond.


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