“The idea of lineage goes directly to the origins of our company and the reason for our existence,” Sekou Conde says over the phone. The executive director of Muntu Dance Theatre is speaking about the title of the company’s upcoming concert at the Logan Center for the Arts, part of the larger weekend-long DanceAfrica Chicago celebration. But he is talking about more than a marketing decision for a single performance; his words underlie Muntu’s modus operandi: awareness of history, reverence for roots and how those roots nourish new growth. Each performance opens with a procession of elders—a council that gives benediction before the younger generations set the stage on fire. “There is a libation and, out of respect for the traditions, younger people always ask the elders if we have the permission to start,” Conde says. “It gives importance to those who have been here before us and gone through life’s lessons. We sit at their feet and try to get as much wisdom as possible going forward.”
A big part of Muntu’s mission is preservation, a word that can bring to mind dusty volumes and desiccated objects under glass. But performances by Muntu invoke the power of the past in brilliant hues and thunderclaps: drumming, dance and song so joyfully kinetic it would be cruel to ask any other company to follow them. “When [Muntu] started in 1972 it was all around the concept of bringing traditional African arts to the wider community, focusing on the African American population,” Conde says. “We understood it would give that population a sense of importance, that they came from a powerful place, a place that wasn’t just forests and lions and tigers, but that Africa was the cradle of civilization. We wanted not just to bring education of African civilization, but its artistic legacy from drumming, dancing, singing and folklore. That’s why it’s theatre with an r-e, because we like to present occasions: Music or dancing that happens during a particular ceremony.”
Muntu specializes in West African traditions but keeps the vast African diaspora in its field of vision, including music and dance of South Africa and the Caribbean. In a past interview, artistic director Regina Perry-Carr told me this mission makes her a lifelong student, continually traveling to research the traditions of hundreds of cultures that thrive in the fifty-four countries on the African continent and bring them back to Chicago. She said to truly appreciate a dance—and not appropriate it—it is vital to experience how that dance exists in relationship to the entirety of a culture, from food to spirituality to the day-to-day rhythms of life.
For the “Lineage” concert, Muntu will perform “Bao,”a dance from the forest region shared by Guinea and the Ivory Coast. It is an initiation for girls, trained by elder women—typically outside their immediate families—in the power of womanhood. “For us, it’s the equivalent of going to school,” Conde says. “When we thought of ‘lineage,’ we wanted to be able to show not just the way traditional initiation rites happened, but how it’s similar to what we do in America today. To show that wherever you are on the planet, we all go through the same rites of passage. All cultures have a way of ushering young people into the next stage of life.”
The program will also feature pieces by guest companies working in African and African American dance styles. St. Louis-based Afriky Lolo, which specializes in West African dance, will perform. So will Chicago-based African and African American company Najwa Dance Corps, and Chicago’s M.A.D.D. Rhythms—making the connection between the Black American art form of tap dance and its origins in African dance and percussion.
The Saturday performance is the centerpiece of DanceAfrica Chicago—a weekend filled with workshops from visiting artists and a lower-cost family matinee Friday afternoon. DanceAfrica, a celebration of African culture that includes food, clothing and other crafts, began decades ago in Brooklyn. Charles Davis, the festival’s founder, helped it spread to major cities across the country. DanceAfrica Chicago fizzled out several years ago but was revived by Muntu last year for the company’s fiftieth-anniversary season. The upcoming “Lineage” concert was originally slated then, but funding shortfalls forced the show to be postponed. It was a disappointment during a milestone year few dance organizations will ever reach, yet an all-too-common challenge for artists working in non-European and folkloric dance styles. Happily, Muntu is staging the program this year and will be hosting DanceAfrica Chicago annually.
During that past interview with Perry-Carr, she mentioned “muntu” is a Bantu word meaning “essence of humanity.” “Through our art we want to display what the essence of humanity is,” she says. “How we want to be with one another, how we want to treat each other, how we want our audiences to feel when they walk away from one of our performances—the essence of humanity: Love, understanding.”
Muntu Dance Theatre’s “Lineage,” Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th, Saturday, August 12 at 7:30pm. $25-$175. Tickets at muntu.com.