October 25, 2018
For Thursday night’s post-show discussion of Sankofa Danzafro’s City of Others, Artistic Director Rafael Palacios illuminated to many who may not have known (this writer included), that Colombia is the second largest country in Latin America with African descent in its population. As he and his dancers went on, through a translator, those who stayed were further educated on the various regions of Colombia – not only how culturally distinct they are, but also how the dancers came from many of them before finding Sankofa, based in Medellín, the country’s second largest city.
City of Others functions as its title suggests – the result of a collaborative process of movement contributions from these regions. On average, the language strikes Western eyes as a Latin-infused hip-hop, but this reading does no justice to all the forms of traditional dance and martial arts that wind into the work’s DNA, rendering the piece as a physical facsimile of the aggregate diversity of Medellín.
Sections take the form of soloists moving against a textured chorus. While mostly vigorously danced, there are brief, refreshing breaks of pedestrian chatter, singing, and live drumming in a work that begins with a lively air, only to morph over the hour into a call for resistance.
A field of raised fists gives a first impression of uprising. As others navigate through ensemble lurches, our perceptive mirage vanishes to reveal a group of tired commuters, the soloists at once perhaps the passengers’ inner, higher selves or literal public transit performers. Towards the end, the break dancer of the group abandons the pattern of dancing against a backdrop of secondary focus to employ the ensemble as a straight jacket – amid rapid shaking, he knows he will catapult into the audience if not properly restrained.
Where there are language barriers, we feel evolving episodes of aggression, innocuously initiated with the rowdy shoves of a playful schoolyard spar. Palacios eschews fight choreography for a more nuanced illustration of a community stifling itself in an oppressive system. The costumes, reminiscent of private school uniforms, curtail visual cultural expression. Three large wooden boards form a Sisyphean ramp of social mobility no dancer can traverse; a vertical coffin encases solos concluded by joining the collective holding of the boards – unconscious complacency in a system that traps its consumers in disenfranchisement. The boards, conversely, allow dancers to literally rise above the crowd to deliver gestural warnings of slavery’s reincarnation.
We think of New York City as the place to which we can escape from our small towns to find freedom in expression. In Melledín, the dancers of Sankofa only feel visible if they are executing their town of origin’s associated movement forms. In urban environments more interested in conformity than diversity, performance is truth, and Sankofa Danzafro’s rich representation of choreographic multiplicity achieves a work that allows any audience to find their own sense of otherness reflected and celebrated.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews