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

One of the most admirable qualities about COBA (a.k.a. Collective of Black Artists) is the Dance Company's inherent integrity.

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

COBA's primary mandate is to present traditional African and Caribbean dance music and folklore in a theatrical setting. Rather than being slavishly chained to authenticity, however, the company creates choreography in homage of its black ancestral heritage. Most importantly COBA remains true to the spirit of its roots, while never tarting up dances for glitz, glitter, or theatrical show. The company's new concert, Les Rythmes de La Foret, is a case in point.

The program is dedicated to West African song and dance traditions and while wonderfully entertaining, is also anchored in respect. Three lovely backdrop panels depict the distinctive rounded mud homes and vegetation of West Africa. In true collective spirit, the design and painting was the work of musician Richard "Popcorn" Cumberbatch, and dancers Charmaine Headley and Jason Ying. Eddison B. Lindsay's gorgeous parade of colourfully authentic costumes enhances the vibrant picture of village life, while David Morrison's lighting is a marvel of evocative restraint. This is a West Africa that lives and breathes, not in a fairy tale, but in reality.

The concert seems to follow the course of a day, from Welcome Dance (Choreographed by Lindsay) through Healing Dance (Linda Faye Johnson), then to a duo of celebrations that includes the energetic Mandiani/Doun Doun Ba (Sister Robin Hibbert) drums that drives the activity, whether it is women washing, or a shaman healing. In fact, the eight person musical ensemble gets its own well-deserved time in the spot-light to show off its many talents. COBA puts a large complement of people on stage - eight musicians and singers, and 10 dancers. All are committed, talented performers. There is something very powerfull on a primal level about a synchronized crowd moving and chanting, which is the main West African ritual structure. The basic tenets of African dance can he found in each number -- the windmill arms, the stampeding feet, the shoulder and pelvic thrusts -- yet the use of each is subtly different. No two dances look the same, although they share many common elements. The physicality while mind-numbing in its relentless kinetic energy -- and one wonders how the dancers are able to keep breathing -- is always natural and free-flowing, and never jarring to the eye. The most exciting moments occur when a solo a solo dancer plays off a solo drummer in a battle of virtuoso one-upmanship.

Perhaps the most ambitious piece is Johnson's dance drama Kakilambe a healing dance (1996). A young girl (Arlene Henry) is rendered senseless by her encounter with an evil wood god (Kwanza Msingwana), and the Kakilambe or healer (Ying) must restore her to health, aided by his own dance of spirits and those of his attendants. Here the company not only sings and dances but also acts. Ying, incidentally, is a real talent. Work, however, still needs to be done on how separate numbers are woven together into a seamless whole. Miming people meeting and greeting can only go so far, and these connectives need more imaginative settings. As well the musical group has to conceal its anachronisms. For example, one drum set was nestled in a folding metal frame luggage rack found in every hotel room. Cover it at least, in straw or leather. Similarly, something has to be done about the metal-wheeled drum stand.

Everything else about a COBA concert radiates such a profound purity, that these New World oversights are irritating.

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