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COBA - School
COBA's company in 'Orisha Suite'

If you really want to stir it up, to invoke Bob Marley, take a strong measure of Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe's Afro-fusion and apply it to the COBA (Collective of Black Artists) mix of Afro-Caribbean-Canadian dance.

Photo of BaKari E. Lindsay, co-founder of COBA, the Collective of Black Artists

BaKari Eddison Lindsay, Charmaine Headley, Debbie Y. Nicholls and Julia Morris perform at a pace to bring on a sweat from just watching them in Mantsoe's Bodika/Sessions. The jump-up dance is set to Japanese music reminiscent of the Kodo Drummers. Mantsoe marries Asian martial arts to Balinese hand and arm gestures, West African footwork, ballet positions and Tai Chi configurations.

Bodika is the word for initiation sessions that welcomed youths into the South African Pedi tribe. Mantsoe employs the physical language of ritual to construct a dance that opens under shadowy lighting, as if in a clearing in the forest. The dancers wear black cotton pants, with boldly coloured appliqués to accentuate their lines and suggest symbolic identities. As they move in ever more frenzied fashion, they form rapidly mutating shapes, as if seen through a kaleidoscope.

Mantsoe is a South African choreographer and dancer who electrified a DanceWorks audience in 2002 with a series of powerfully spiritual solos.

He started dancing on the streets of Soweto, and parlayed his talent into a place as resident choreographer for the Johannesburg company Moving Into Dance. Now he lives outside Vichy, France, and takes commissions all over the world, from Israel to Sweden, to Montreal and New York. He has collaborated for the last four years with dancers in Japan.

Mantsoe's philosophy of preserving ancient African belief systems by extending them into the present serves his choreography well. Bodika/Sessions is an aggressive, almost combative piece, with a historical dimension: It reminds us that African dance in the New World evolved as a form of resistance.

Lindsay took the first part of his title Ho's N Head-wraps/Cheque Yo Soul from a poem by True Daley that inspired a dance about the commodification of indigenous culture. Headley is the woman at the market, shopping for an exotic look, and picking up shell jewelry, a dashiki, headwrap and skirt until she is the image of the African woman. She literally dresses up in her off-the-rack identity.

Behind her in black leotards, a ghostly ensemble of women dancers chant, "Conscious costumes won't bring your soul back," and strike poses like mannequins.

The music is Zap Mama and Femi Kuti, artists with strong opinions about the exploitation of Africa and Africans. The most modern-looking piece on the program, Ho's N Head-wraps blares its politics a little too loudly, but not at the expense of some beautiful movement from Headley and her insidious companions.

The five-member COBA drumming ensemble intensifies the sense of authenticity in an evening honouring the past without enshrining it.

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