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COBA - School
COBA's company in 'Orisha Suite'
February 26-28, 2010 Fleck Dance Theatre Reviewed posted on the Goethe-Institut Kanada web site
Photo of BaKari E. Lindsay, co-founder of COBA, the Collective of Black Artists

As one of Toronto's top black dance companies, COBA, Collective of Black Artists, can always be counted on for eye-catching, polished works flavoured with Afro-Caribbean sensibilities. The ambitious program under the umbrella name "Diasporic Dimensions" included three world premieres and one remount that evoked the influences of Mali, Haiti, Jamaica and South Africa.

There was, however, a sense of uniformity to the evening. While each dance was individually worthy, the sum total of the whole was not greater than its parts. "Diasporic Dimensions" needed variety of mood to jolt the audience with an electric charge.

*BaKari E. Lindsay's "Mande Variations"
The Mande people of West Africa are the keepers of centuries old classical African music traditions. COBA co-artistic director Lindsay was inspired by the Mande kora, a 21 stringed harp that requires virtuoso musicians who manipulate the instrument to provide a bass line, rhythmic tempo, and improvisation of technique all at the same time.

Lindsay cleverly structured the piece to mirror all three elements through an opening quintet, duet, solo and company finale. A harp can never sound harsh, and the easy and loose African-influenced choreography paralleled Toumani Diabate's recorded gentle kora inventions. Lindsay's choreographic patterns emulated the complexity of Diabate's music.

The droll duet for Lindsay and Mafa Makhubalo translated the kora music into human terms of male bonding, while Teisha Smith's solo was both sexy and physically complex at the same time. Unfortunately the lack of synchronization in the company pieces was distracting, but the zebra-striped over tunics of Lindsay's own design were gorgeous.

*Jeanguy Saintus' "Moments"
Mercifully, Saintus had set his work on COBA before the Haiti earthquake, because he could not get a flight off the island to come back for fine tuning. The company showed they had Saintus and his devastated island in their hearts with the intensity they brought to his voodoo inspired choreography.

Set to a pastiche score that included Afro-Jazz, choral speaking and western baroque music, Saintus set up his piece to move from despair to hope. There were some lovely images, such as a graceful trio of women who set the trance-like state, a beautiful mirror-image duet for Michelle Dennis and Teisha Smith that grew from downtrodden to strength, and a powerful solo for Lindsay that radiated inner faith. The company finale was one of quiet calm.

Saintus' choreographic language is as needed. Whether a slow and gracious walk, or a pounding of rhythmic feet, every physical action seems to belong perfectly to the mood.

*Julia Morris' "Hightal"
Company member Morris went back to her roots in Jamaica for this mesmerizing Rastafarian-inspired piece that attempted to come to grips with the religion's strong spirituality. The drumming and chanting were performed live which gave the seven dancers a focus to play off.

Morris created the piece to be a dialogue between the dancers and the musicians, and the former always faced the latter. It began in silhouette, with the dark figures sporadically impulsing to the rhythmic beat. By the finale, and now bathed in muted light, there was a dream-like group trance that pervaded their movements.

"Hightal" was the closing work on the program, but even though it had chanting and drumming, given the spirituality of the piece, it never grew to a frenzy, and rightly so. It was also similar in mood to Saintus' "Moments", which preceded it. If these works had been separated, the program would have seemed more varied.

*BaKari E. Lindsay's Maa-Keeba (2009)
The one remount was this stunning work to the music of the late and great South African singer Miriam Makeba, and her rich, strong voice was the undercurrent that drove the piece. Lindsay chose a gorgeous variety of music that followed Makeba's journey from childhood to empowerment.

The dancers began as school children engaging in childish pursuits. A charming solo of innocent first love followed for Shelly Ann McLeod and Mafa Makhubalo. The final four songs were manifested with group dances that were a Greek chorus to the development of a majestic independent woman portrayed by co-artistic director Charmaine Headley.

Headly is a woman of certain years, and she used her experience to be the calm yet charismatic centre of strength, symbolizing Makeba's role as "Mama Africa", who courageously spoke out against Apartheid. Her very presence galvanized the dancers around her, and at the final moment of the work, she held her arms out to the audience and walked into our hearts.

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