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Thursday, August 27, 2015

To Baba Chuck, With Love

Baba Chuck Davis. Photo: Jack Vartoogian
By David Hsieh

DanceAfrica 2015—Brazilian rhythms, African roots ended on a theatrical and emotional high note. Multiple shows sold out completely with long cancellation lines. The high-octane Balé Folclórico da Bahia and the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble roused the audience to their feet to join their samba/reggae dance. On the street, gorgeous weather brought out tens of thousands of people to the bazaar, sampling everything from crafts, fabrics, jewelry, masks, and clothes, to foods and drinks. The smell of BBQ wafted in the air, mixing with the aroma of soap and incense. The beat of drums were counterpoints to trumpet and saxophone lines. The impromptu street musicians conjured bazaar attendees to dance in the streets.

Balé Folclórico da Bahia. Photo: Jack Vartoogian
Then, at the last performance on May 24, a surprise tribute to DanceAfrica founder, artistic director, and performance griot for the past 38 years, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Davis, moved everyone present. As he dabbed away tears while surprise honors and gifts were piled around him, the audience—also in tears—applauded and cheered. Many purposely chose to attend this performance to say goodbye to their beloved Baba Chuck. Below are some highlights of the 38th DanceAfrica Festival.

The Bronx’s Bambara Drum and Dance Ensemble presented Unchained. Each segment of dance was woven into the next without a break, just like life. Different dances from West Africa—Kou Kou, Kawa, Konte Modou, Soko, Mendiani, and Dundunba—told the story of a great and resilient people. The man on stilts (Vado Diamonte) and a fast-spinning Ishamel Koyate were favorites of the many young audience members.

Bambara Dance and Drum Ensemble. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

Balé Folclórico da Bahia is the only professional folk dance company in Brazil. Its program contained five distinct segments under the theme of Sacred Heritage. It celebrated the rich Afro-Brazilian religious tradition through a series of dances, which showed how members are initiated into the religion, and how the fishermen worship their sea goddess. Contemporary Brazilian dance was represented by samba, capoeira, and “Afixirê,” which paid homage to all the African countries which influenced and helped form Brazilian culture.

The tribute is a totally DanceAfrica-style affair: heart-warming, communal, and festive. Abdel Salaam, the incoming artistic director, stopped Baba Chuck by surprise as he was about to send the dancers and audience onto the street. While he distracted Baba Chuck, a big white throne and two totems were brought onto the stage, and from the ceiling a big mask was lowered. After all was set, Salaam turned Baba Chuck around and seated him in the throne. The tribute proper began. There were dancers from the the Restoration Ensemble. There were gifts from the Elders of Council. BAM President Karen Brooks Hopkins announced the establishment of the Baba Chuck Davis Emerging Choreographer Scholarship with an honorarium of $10,000 to further the study and promotion of African dance. You can see the entirety of it in the video above, including a historical video produced by the BAM Hamm Archives.

Baba Chuck's gift to Karen Brooks Hopkins.
The tribute wasn’t just one way. At the reception after the opening performance on May 22, Baba Chuck presented a gift to Hopkins, who retired this year. He personally designed this windmill music box with candle holders. When candles are lit, the hot air pushes the windmill which in turn, triggers the music. It is an appropriate symbol—the torches, music, and dance of DanceAfrica will keep spinning into the future!

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

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