The drums started calling me a block away from the Athenaeum Theatre, drawing audience members and curious onlookers like bells to a church. Six men stood in a circle, three West African Djembe drums setting the rhythm, supported by three bass drums called Doununs.
A mother with four small children came by. The music of the drums clearly enchanted them, and they started moving to the beat, arms snaking out, feet stamping the pavement. The drummers, aware of their performance partners, took their cure from their movements, hooting and singing snatches of African songs. Those of us waiting outside the theater were treated to an impromptu prelude to One World Dance Theater's production of Deep Draw.
Artistic Director Rebecca Huntman's troupe explores the common roots that connect world dance forms, interweaving Latin, African, Middle Eastern, flamenco, jazz and hip hop to produce works that challenge cultural barriers and attempt to create a global community through dance and music. In March, I attended a fundraiser at their Danza Viva storefront studio in Oak Park and saw some of the works in progress. I'd been looking forward to seeing if One World would be successful in fusing so many disparate traditions in a way that works artistically.
In one of the side theater boxes of this venerable performing space, Funkadesi, an ensemble of musicians at least as culturally diverse as the dances, played a mesmerizing integration of East Indian music with reggae, funk, and Afro-Caribbean grooves, creating a celebratory mood for the Mother's Day crowd. Lights went down and in the ensuing silence a lone flutist, sitting in front of the closed curtain, played a musical strain. Funkadesi responded in kind. A dialogue was established between them?#34;the flute calling, the band answering.
Throughout the afternoon, that call and response was repeated. On one side of the stage, dancers stamped and swirled, evoking African village celebrations or initiation ceremonies, while on the other side undulating torsos and rippling arms answered from India. Spoken poetry by Rumi and Tagore blended with Middle Eastern music. African prints shared the stage with brightly colored Indian scarves.
Not only were cultural barriers breached, but age barriers as well. In "Soli," a harvest celebration dance from Guinea, West Africa, the One World Youth Troupe electrified the audience with their synchronized, no-holds-barred performance. Oak Parker Nick Beebe, one of the youngest dancers, looking like he'd just walked off of a Little League field, showed both concentration and charisma with his smile and non-stop precision dancing. During one of the later musical interludes, a young drummer joined adults in an energetic drum jam that had musicians and audience cheering.
The performances demonstrated the many varieties of controlled abandon. In "Sorsornet," guest artist Moustapha Bangoura appeared to be directing from behind the dancers. His spare, subtle moves beautifully conveyed his history of African dance, while the others leaped and twisted in climactic ecstasy.
The "Behind the Veil" series of four dances, scattered throughout the program, provided the weakest links.
One of the strongest was a global hip-hop fusion titled, "U-nited Elementz," performed in street clothes to music by Panjabi MC, Armdiab, Beenie Man, Rahzell, Big Boy and Sultan Tune.
Does One World Dance Theater successfully create a global dance form? If the measure is energy and entertainment, the answer is a resounding yes. The pieces preserve the recognizable elements of different cultures while unlocking the possibilities of artistic fusion. Huntman, who deserves credit for her vision and enthusiastic journey of cultural exploration, joined her company for the finale. As the curtain fell, I could still see her high heels dancing away.
?#34;Mary Lee O'Brien