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

It is tempting to brand COBA, which stands for Collective of Black Artists Inc., an exotic enterprise.

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

The Toronto based company, which is performing at the Ford Centre of the Performing Arts through tonight, knows how to heat up the sanitised enclave of an uptown theatre with elaborately decorated spectacles that burst with colour, song, drumming and vividly rhythmic movement. The traditions stem from various points of the African Diaspora, including Canada, which is occasionally represented in the two-hour program by introspective, text-driven work.

But exotic isn't quite right. The word implies something distant and rare and ornamental, an object to ogle, not fully experience. While definitely good-looking, COBA instead encourages the audience to peer more closely at itself through a growing repertoire of works that highlight social responsibility and the potential for social change.

Even if the spectator wants to lean back and admire, the sheer force of COBA's instructional drive collapses complacency. This is a company that makes you sit up and take notice for all the right reasons.

Four of the five works on the program that opened Thursday night were three world premieres. They include Anne-Marie Hood's Some Bread is Brown, a childlike fantasia on a racial theme that lacked a clear dramatic focus; Sweet Ensemble, a spirited performance of Afro-Caribbean drums and chants; Bush Bath, a multimedia piece; and Hommage a Erzulie, by guest choreographer Jeanguy Saintus of Haiti, part sacred dance, part abstract study, part physical drama. Misa Criolla, Eddison B. Lindsay's seven-part liturgical work from 1996, was per-formed by the COBA dancers with Toronto's Orpheus Choir.

Hommage a Erzulie was the most accomplished work of the evening. Here Saintus pays respect to a female deity known as Erzulie, who lights the way to inner peace with the help of her mate, Papa Legba. These divinities present themselves as full human beings (COBA Co founders Charmaine Headley and Lindsay perform the parts) with ferocious energies and sensuous charms. Their supplicants (Ayesatta Conteh, Anthony P. Guerra, Marlene Richardson and Sharon Harvey) intensely and deliriously worship them.

Possessed by faith, they are also propelled by it. With lit candles, swirling lace shawls and potions, they dramatize the ritualistic practices of their religion. Props aside, they fill the surrounding space with virtuoso displays of balance, speed and muscle control. Most of their movements are characterized by a spiralling line of beauty that constantly invigorates the dance, giving it pulse and texture.

Where Saintus makes a vital connection between humans and the spiritual world, Headley choreographs a work that draws attention to the fragmentation of contemporary urban life. Bush Bath deftly combines video, pedestrian gesture, modern dance and spoken word for an impressive but dismal portrait of a disintegrated society.

The text, written by Headley and confidently delivered by Kathryn Wellington and Anthony C. Baptiste along with five other performers, has the feel of an inner-city sermon. "Don't be in such a haste to blame another race," and 'Unite and be right, be righteous to each other," are chanted repeatedly, like evangelical Incantations inciting change.

While rough-hewn, the structure of the dance is a convincing metaphor for the feelings of despair and hope that intermingle in the text. At the start, the dancers are scattered, isolated, disjointed in their movements. At the end, they are encircled, united, moving harmoniously as one.

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