The Baltimore Museum of Art launched into Black History month this weekend with performances by the Washington-based KanKouran West African Dance Company.
Under the choreographic direction of Assane Konte and musical direction of Abdou Kounta -- both transplanted West Africans -- the company celebrated dance and musical traditions of Senegal, Mali, Guinea and other West African countries in an uplifting and high-wattage showcase.
KanKouran means "The Spirit Lives," and the troupe, comprised of 12 men and 12 women, certainly impressed the audience with their seemingly boundless stamina and spirited movements. KanKouran offers part theater and part ceremony.
The four dances shown had themes of survival, from the appeasement of nature to the intricate workings of a community. Yet while the themes are serious, the dancesare pure entertainment. Mr. Konte doesn't dryly present his dances; he turns cultural traditions into animated adventures.
A drum call with eight drums of various sizes and sounds signaled the start of the program. After this pulsating invocation, first the men, then the women filed in to dance "Akonkon." This dance combined two ideas -- a request for rain and an enthusiastic work of thanksgiving for a crop well grown and harvested.
While most of the movements were performed in unison, there were solos, duets and trios. Personalities shone through, from brazen to bashful, and while the performers varied in accomplishment, they radiated with energy. At the center was Mr. Konte -- a handsome and commanding performer whose movements were both gracious and royal.
African dance is a tradition that is passed from one generation to another. When KanKouran's Children's Company performed the "Sou Nou," a dance of initiation usually performed at rites of passage ceremonies for young people stepping into adulthood, the capacity crowd clapped wildly to see the youngsters take the stage and out-dance their elders.
The closing dance, the "Mandiani," was colorful and lively with playful movements that had elements of contemporary break-dancing. The men bounded and leaped, their legs pumping out one rhythm while their shoulders and arms countered with another.
The women, dressed in bright colors and cowrie shells, accented the rhythms with their hips and heads. The whole atmosphere was festive, and when the final drums sounded the audience stood and cheered.