Can’t afford a fantasy trip to Uganda? Then let Uganda come to you.
This past weekend, the Joyce Theatre (on 8th avenue between 18th and 19th streets), was home to the 21-city traveling show called The Spirit of Uganda. This group of singers, dancers, and musical performers consists of 22 extremely talented children and young adults, ranging in age from eight to 22 years old. Each individual hails from different parts of Uganda; each having lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. These children are highlighted for their dedication on and off the stage, with each one continuing their education from elementary school up to university levels.
As I made my way into the contemporary-styled theatre, I quickly noticed the large stage beautifully draped with a crimson red velvet curtain. I was ushered to my seat only to find out that I practically had the best seat in the house. Sitting comfortably in the orchestra section with a perfect panoramic view of the stage, I took in the African beats that were playing on the premium sound system, waiting in severe anticipation of the show.
As the seats started to fill up, I was amazed to see such a diverse crowd attending this performance. People of all different ages and backgrounds were ready to enjoy something a little different than a typical ballet or modern dance. Although the theatre is quite small without a real mezzanine level, its shape and seating arrangements allowed people sitting all the way in the top corner the chance for a great viewing experience.
As curtain-time rolled around, a woman appeared on stage to introduce the group and offer some background information for the audience. The purpose of this show is to highlight East African culture and allow Americans to view it up-close-and-personal, representing the transformation of the arts and education through generations and continents.
When the curtains went up and the dancers filled the stage, the up-beat music automatically perked up my ears. The stage set-up was simple with a projected image of a skyline which continually changed throughout the show, going from a bright-blue cloudless day to breathtaking orange and red hues of an unforgettable African sunset.
Each dance was preceded by a thorough description of the importance and cultural roots behind them. The first dance is used to measure the intelligence of men, where they must create as many movements as possible without repeating any. The winner is chosen to marry a special woman. Throughout this dance, five boys and five girls sprung all over the place while barefoot, barely touching the ground with their feet as they completed each staccato-step.
The costumes were just as interesting as any other part of the show. After each number, each member changed their style of dress. These shirts, dresses, skirts and pants were all made of various colorful cloths indigenous to Africa, as well as using dried grasses and even instruments as a part of the costume. These instruments were attached to various body parts such as the arms and legs, which were used by the dancers to play music in between dance steps. The costumes were very well thought out because each different piece seemed to be made to emphasize a particular movement on that part of the body. Grass skirts were used on the men during a dance which concentrated on hip movement, while tall hats on the ladies were used to bring attention to their head movements.
It was easy to see the choreography, music and lyrics were pre-set and practiced over and over again, but it was the impromptu moves and sounds made by the performers that really gave this show an added boost. By incorporating yelps (which also came from the audience) in addition to special dance steps, the tempo was always high throughout the entire show which really kept the viewers wanting more and more.
The agility and poise that these young men and women possessed is unlike anything else I have ever seen. I have been to Africa before and witnessed many people carrying baskets, among other things, atop of their heads while moving from one place to another. However, I had never seen anyone dance so intricately and move so quickly while balancing vases made of clay on their tiny heads. During this number, the dancers swept across the stage from one side to the other, twirling around one another without losing balance or dropping a vase. Dances like these performed during the show were very interactive in which they danced with each other, switching partners while completing very precise movements. The girls even went as far as to dance on the tips of their toes while balancing the vases. Although these moves required a great amount of concentration, smiles never left the faces of these young men and women who looked that they truly enjoyed every second of their entertaining.
From beginning to end, it seemed as though the energy these dancers possessed could not be matched by even a top professional athlete. The performance lasted almost two hours, with not one dancer ever missing a beat. Their constant movement showcased their talent and fitness level as they barely even broke a sweat by the end of the show. The energy given off by these performers transmitted into the audience; I felt so alive I was practically dancing in my seat. Each beat of the percussion could be felt in my heart and through my bones.
The loud percussion used in conjunction with heavy stepping in solos, duets and group numbers really threw the audience for a new turn each and every time a new song started. The hours, days, and possibly years of training and practice these performers have put in really shines through their work. The footwork was so fast and intricate that even if one movement was off by one person, an entire number could be thrown off. These dancers executed each movement perfectly through every step, even their arm and head movements were in-sync. Even down to the smallest child, each move was done with such care and passion as they all showed a great amount of pride for their country and their culture.
The message these native Ugandans portrayed throughout the entire performance was evident and came out through each second of the 105-minute show. The “spirit of Uganda” truly shined in the Joyce Theatre that night, as these 22 members who have lost so much are still able to look toward a brighter day as they bring smiles and cheer from people all across America as their share their talents and their continued success.
The soulful singing, vibrant dance moves and powerful music all came together to create a spectacular performance unprecedented by anything else I have ever seen. Although the show has already left New York, I know hundreds of more concert-goers throughout the country will enjoy this unique contemporary work of art as much as I have.