Enter the Past, Present, and Future of African Diaspora with Sankofa Danzafro’s “Behind the South: Dances for Manuel”

Dancers Yesid Quejada, Yndira Perea, Yeison Moreno. Photo by Marcela Gómez
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By Liana Wilson-Graff

Sankofa: a Ghanaian word and symbol of a bird with its feet facing forward and head turnebackward, representing the importance of remembering the past, and carrying your roots with
you — “returning to the root”. Sankofa Danzafro’s Behind the South: Dances for Manuel
embodies this concept with fervor and precision. In an evening-length piece that absolutely flies
by, choreographer and artistic director of Colombian dance company Sankofa Danzafro Rafael
Palacios honors Colombian anthropologist, doctor, and writer Manuel Zapata Olivella and his
1
983 novel, Changó, el Gran Putas, where he covers the history of the African diaspora
throughout South America. The wide-sweeping force that accompanies a focus on the African
diaspora is vital and epically portrayed throughout the piece, in which the dancers pay also
tribute to the Muntu African people and the Yoruba spiritual and embodied tradition.

Photo by Marcela Gómez

Because traditional African dance is a social, cultural, and spiritual experience embodied by the
people, not exclusive to professional performing artists, and not originated with the proscenium
stage as its performance space, much of the African dance performance we see in the US is
adjusted to lend itself to the stage-audience separation. And because traditional African dance
is somewhat less accessible in performance spaces and even dance studios in the US, I have
found that the emphasis is on the movement, without neglecting the Yoruba lineages but the
focus is on sharing and maintaining the embodied heritage. Sankofa Danzafro takes African
diasporic movement and then creates its own unique framing and narrative with hypnotic artistic
nuance and abstraction — all this while staying faithful to history and tradition. I had never seen
anything like it and was left truly awestruck.

Separated into five acts, the piece begins with dancers running on and off stage, ending the
short sequence with just one woman left in the center rising and falling with a constant tremble
emanating from her core out to her limbs and head. The tremble is immensely powerful
kinesthetically, while giving her a distinct spiritual and artistic authority as a dancer and
character in the piece, yet simultaneously there is something devastating about it. The tremble
becomes a motif in this piece as do other small movements that punctuate but hypnotize. The
music is layered with live drum performances and recordings, layering traditional African drums
with a drum machine, vocalization, and otherworldly electronic noises that transport you into this
world of non-linear time and space. You can’t help but lean forward in your seat and allow your
eyes and mind to enter the atmosphere of these dancers as they express joy, power, release,
pride, grief, and serious focus.

Photo by Marcela Gómez

Palacios and his phenomenal, multifaceted dancers can innovate without losing tradition, create
theatrical and emotionally charged moments where the audience feels grounded in a certain
time and place, then minutes later completely lose that sense to capture a feeling of suspension
in the expanse of a lineage and its possibilities for the future. This company never loses sight of
its name, fully embracing the meaning of Sankofa in every way. Sankofa Danzafro “returns to
the root” in a way that is uniquely theirs without individualism or vanity, and honestly, I just want
to keep coming back.

Dancer Daniela Hernandez. Photo credit courtesy of Sankofa Danzafro

Sankofa Danzafro’s, Behind the South: Dances for Manuel is presented by The Joyce Theater
Foundation (Linda Shelton, Executive Director) and is playing at The Joyce Theater from
February 27 – March 3. Tickets, ranging in price from $12-$72 including fees, can be purchased
at www.Joyce.org, or by calling JoyceCharge at 212-242-0800. Please note: ticket prices are
subject to change. The Joyce Theater is located at 175 Eighth Avenue at West 19th Street.
For more information, please visit www.Joyce.org

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