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

Premiere Dance Theatre is the usual performing home of COBA (Collective of Black Artists), but this concert has a special significance. For the first time, the Toronto-based ensemble is appearing at PDT as part of the prestigious Harbourfront Dance Series, and of particular interest is whether the local guys can hold their own on the same stage as international dance companies. The answer is a qualified yes.

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

Although its production values are first rate, especially the live- music component, COBA's dancing is uneven. Due to the company's financial constraints, these talented dancers have to hold down day jobs and therefore don't have 'the spit and polish of full-time professionals.

Since its founding in 1993, COBA has dedicated itself to presenting the Black experience, particularly through African and Afro-Caribbean traditions, rituals and folklore. The other COBA interest is new choreography inspired by themes, from the African Diaspora. The three premieres on the program show COBA wearing both hats.

Eddison B. Lindsay's Griot's Jive is certainly a compelling piece. In West African tradition, the Griot was a storyteller who kept alive a tribe's history through the oral tradition.

In this piece the Griots are the mothers of children who have been killed by gun violence in dance clubs or drive-by shootings. Six courageous Toronto mothers tell the stories of their lost sons via a film component; they were also on stage at the end to take a well-deserved bow.

Lindsay's piece is a sucker punch, starting with lighter fare before dealing a deadly blow. The work begins with an amusing sequence involving a monolithic bouncer frisking patrons as they enter a dance club. Some lively social dancing follows, including an eye-catching break- dance by the elastic-boned, Germane Archer. The sudden sounds of gun fire brings hysteria and chaos, and an abrupt end to Bob Marley's toe- tapping party music.

After the mothers' film sequence. The dancers now clothed in white traditional African garb, perform ghostly ritual to live singing and drumming. This episode could represent either the spirit of the dead youth being received by their African ancestors, or a harkening back to pre-slavery tribal days when the futures of young men were more certain. The film credits include a harrowing list of names, year by year, of all the dead children. As a reflection of Black urban angst, Griot's Jive represents the troubled conscience of a troubled society.

Haitian guest choreographer Jeanguy Saintus created Transe for the 16-member ensemble. It takes the audience through a traditional voodoo ritual and is set to a stunning mix of taped and live music (the latter led by Haitian master drummer Daniel Brevil). The thrust of the work is the initiate's willing surrender to the spirit of the god. Saintus begins with slow, sensuous pelvic movements, which echo traditional West African dance. This African influence continues throughout the work as the movements intensify. By the end, the dancers are jumping and turning at a dizzying rate, before melting down into a lyrical epiphany. The cast immersed themselves in the rhythmic music with passion. The supple Jason Ying, who contorts his body through the snake-like Damballa with sinuous ease, is a stand- out. And finally, co-artistic director Charmaine Headley's Inspirit is a charming, sprightly female trio that mirrors the graceful movements of birds and animals fetchingly performed by Sarah Anthony, Julia Morris and Debbie Y. Nicholls.

Overall, COBA delivers a satisfying program that balances the books between, provocative statement and entertainment.

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