The snap of a finger on a djembe drum starts the beat of DanceAfrica’s annual festival, which officially begins May 18.
The opening ceremony, led by founder Chuck Davis, presents an overture of the dance, music, art and film to come during the weeklong celebration of African and diaspora culture. Now in its 37th year, the nation’s largest festival dedicated to African dance performs with more vigor than ever.
Established in 1977, DanceAfrica sought to heighten awareness of African culture and counter the stereotypes of Africans in the media. The response by the local community was immediate: What began as single performance at a constructed African village in the Lepercq Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music quickly grew into a multi-day affair with an ever-expanding résumé of performers from around the world.
“We began with only local companies,” Davis remembers. “Now we are international. As we have grown, so has our audience.”
This year, DanceAfrica focuses on the music and culture of Madagascar. Joining the four performances of Malagasy dance and music are art exhibitions, lectures, dance workshops, late-night DJ parties, film showings, a children’s village and a bazaar with 200 vendors selling crafts, food and fashion. Musically, New York and Madagascar unite for a show in the performance by Bakomanga, which includes students at Brooklyn’s own Asase Yaa school of the arts and AACC Dance & Drum Performance Company out of Buffalo.
Other highlights include folk and blues guitarist Madagascar Slim, vocalist Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo and the BAM/Restoration DanceAfrica Ensemble. DanceAfrica pays tribute to the visual arts through the work of Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore, known for her organic wall sculptures built largely from found material like clay, newspaper, wax and burlap. Sunday afternoon, she discusses and demonstrates her sculptural process with BAM Visual Art curator Holly Shen Chaves at the Fisher Hillman Studio. Okore will also unveil a new sculpture commissioned for the festival.
A cinematic companion to this year’s celebration includes fiction and documentary films from across Africa, also with a special focus on Madagascar. It’s in the attendees themselves, however, that the primary goal of the festival can be found: a commitment to keeping Africa’s cultural heritage alive.
For Davis, the best way is to embrace and share the spirit. “DanceAfrica is a celebration for everyone.”
If you go
Brooklyn Academy of Music:
Peter Jay Sharp Building,30 Lafayette Ave.
Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St.
Fisher, 321 Ashland Place
Tickets $20-$55 per performance