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Friday, May 24, 2013

How Many Miles from Brooklyn to Bulawayo?

by Sophie Shackleton

Umkhathi Theatre Works performing in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (Photo: Nick Schwartz-Hall)

DanceAfrica is a treasured annual event for BAM and the Brooklyn community to celebrate African and African-American culture. Behind the scenes, it's much more than a weekend: it's a story of an ongoing relationship between BAM and Africa. Baba Chuck Davis started DanceAfrica 36 years ago, and for more than 20 years, has invited an ensemble from the African continent to perform at BAM. Two years ago, a dynamic relationship began to form with Zimbabwe.

In 2010, BAM began a new partnership with the US Department of State, sending American contemporary dance companies on international exchange tours throughout the world in an effort of cultural diplomacy. As a producer and presenter of cultural work from all over the globe, BAM wanted to explore how it could share American work in the other direction. This program, DanceMotion USA, produced tours by 16 dance companies to 36 countries over the past three years. Last year, when the State Department said it wanted to send a company to Zimbabwe, BAM had an idea in mind: tap dance.

The First 20,000 Miles: LA to Zimbabwe

A uniquely American tradition with roots in African rhythms and Irish clogging, tap is an integral part of dance history, and BAM was excited to share it with Zimbabwean dancers who have such a strong understanding of percussion. After months of emails and phone calls between BAM and the US Embassy in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, Jazz Tap Ensemble from Los Angeles set off for southern Africa.

Learning tap dance in Zimbabwe (Photo: US Embassy Harare)

It was the beginning of a great friendship. Hundreds of students showed up for Jazz Tap’s workshops in both Harare and Bulawayo (the second largest city, in the south). Months after the tappers left, the embassy called BAM and asked if there was any possibility of getting more tap shoes—the Zimbabwean dance community wanted to keep practicing but there weren’t enough shoes to go around.

So BAM sent more.

Students in Zimbabwe receive shoes from BAM (Photo: US Embassy Harare)

34,000 Miles: BAM Returns to Bulawayo

Meanwhile, DanceAfrica preparations were underway in Brooklyn. For this year’s opening ceremony, it seemed appropriate to add a musical element, and coincidentally, Zimbabwe’s music traditions were calling. Artistic Director Chuck Davis and BAM Line Producer Nick Schwartz-Hall travelled to southern Africa. Once again, our friends at the US Embassy in Harare were happy to to help connect BAM with the artists of Bulawayo, although this time the footwear was traditionally Zimbabwean: rubber boots and foot rattles made of dried seed pods.

Umkhathi with Baba Chuck (Photo: Nick Schwartz-Hall)

Nick Schwartz-Hall and Umkhathi Artistic Director Matesu Dube

The BAM team was impressed by the talent seen over the next few days, but one group stunned them: Umkhathi Theatre Works, led by Artistic Director Matesu Dube. On a tiny concrete stage under an aluminum roof, more than 20 local performers drummed, clapped, danced, slapped, jumped, and sang their stories with exuberance. Made up of members of the Ndebele tribe from the south of the country, their work ranges from traditional harmonized singing to the Gumboot rapping that developed during colonial rule. Zimbabwe saw tap dance; Americans needed to see this.

Umkhathi performing in Bulawayo (Photo: Nick Schwartz-Hall)

35,000 and counting: Zimbabwe comes to BAM

Umkhathi at the Embassy in Harare before their visa interviews (Photo: Nigel Wilson / US Embassy Harare)

Travel between Zimbabwe and the US entails lots of paperwork and meetings and long-distance phone calls, but thanks to an expert team of international producers, the help of the US Embassy in Harare, and some good old-fashioned sheer will, 18 Zimbabweans recently arrived at BAM’s studios. It is their first time in the United States.

Matesu Dube on the Brooklyn Bridge (Photo: Desmond Ntini)

Umkhathi rehearsing “Gumboots” in BAM's studio (Photo: Umkhathi Theatre Works)

Along with performances in the Opera House (a big change from that concrete stage), Umkhathi is rubbing shoulders with a whole host of artists from the African diaspora, not to mention an American community embracing them with open arms—global citizenship at its finest.

And poignantly, for the last two weeks, local Brooklyn youth from the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble have strapped on traditional foot rattles and worked with Umkhathi to learn Zimbabwean dance.

Umkhathi Theatre Works and the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble (Photo: Dino Perucci)

We might have to reach out to Bulawayo for some more pairs.  

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