Wednesday, March 16, 2011

About Town: Step Afrika!

Well, the MH cultural correspondent didn't make it to Umphrey's McGee -- some mumbled nonsense about a long day at work and needing some rest. We had hoped for better.

Still, the month hasn't been a complete wash. Step Afrika! was in town tonight.

Aside: How exactly was the punctuation supposed to work in that last sentence? Maybe we should be Montana Headlines! if for no other reason than to confound critics who might want to quote us unflatteringly, but who would be stymied at trying to decide how to punctuate sentences like: "Montana Headlines! really outdid themselves (him/herself?) in publishing hopelessly silly drivel."

But we digress. MH has tended, over the years, to attend mostly Billings Symphony Orchestra concerts at the Alberta Bair (although this season it was hard to find any performances to get excited about attending, given the goofiness into which that organization's programming has descended... seriously...,) supplemented by other classical or traditional music concerts. But man cannot live by classical music alone, so off to the Alberta Bair to see Step Afrika! it was.

One of the most impressive feats of the performers was their ability to maintain their composure and good humor when attempting to get an audience that was 99.9% white (white with little or no personal exposure to black culture, no less) to do audience participation things that required rhythm. Really, if someone thinks that the opening scenes of the Steve Martin movie "The Jerk" are purely caricature, well, everyone is entitled to their little delusions. (Not a terribly funny movie, overall, it must be interjected.)

Actually, with patience and repetition, the performers actually did a pretty good job of getting the audience to clap, snap, shuffle, and exclaim things like "Hoo-ah" from the diaphragm in something that resembled rhythmic responses. Even more complex tasks like responding to the call of "alright!" with "OK!" and vice-versa began to be mastered toward the end. A couple of brave audience members who got up on stage to learn some rudimentary stepping even ended up playing bit parts in a Zulu village dance scene. We must confess to being jealous of the guy who got to carry a skin-covered Zulu shield and a tribal spear. One thought of asking if one could borrow it for Montana spear-hunting season, but then we recalled that unfortunately there isn't going to be one after all. Sometimes our politicians are so lacking in humor, a spirit of adventure, or both.

So, back to the performance. In a word, it was superb. Pace the name of the dance-troupe, stepping didn't begin as a distinct dance form in Africa, but rather in black fraternities and sororities in the early 20th century here in America. Like most American cultural currents, however, the roots are indeed from the old country, filtered through a century or more of the black American experience.

We recalled during the performance having read a grotesque Robert Ludlum novel called The Matlock Paper -- our 3rd and final try at another Robert Ludlum novel after having read and enjoyed The Bourne Identity. The Matlock Paper made a convincing case that Ludlum apparently only had the one good book in him (good as in a good airport or beach or ski-trip novel.) Anyway, in the book, a pretty caricatured black fraternity organization makes an appearance, and the white protagonist has the rare privilege (as we recall) of getting to see an initiation ceremony at the frat house. Ludlum's version had some dangerous use of spears or some other sharp weapons as part of the ritual, and thankfully nothing like that happened at the Alberta Bair. Of course, that Ludlum scene probably originated not in careful research, but rather in Ludlum's need to create some pulp excitement in a book that even he had to know was tedious enough to have airport readers reaching for a Barbara Cartland novel out of sheer desperation to escape boredom.

Where were we? Oh, yes. Black fraternities. One of the scenes in tonight's performance was a portrayal of the role of stepping in said fraternity ceremonies. Their version was far more artistic than we recall Ludlum's being. Another scene was a portrayal of stepping competitions that happen between fraternities and sororities. Tonight it was men vs. women -- we thought the men narrowly carried the day, but the audience called it a tie. But then, everyone is a winner these days, aren't they? Unless winners are being declared losers...

We've already mentioned the Zulu village scene. And then there was the South African miner scene, doing the gum-boot dance (See photo above,) done wearing "gum-boots" -- or what the Brits call "Wellies." We've liked Wellies ever since seeing Felicity Kendal in them in the old Good Neighbors episodes on PBS in our younger years. But one struggles to imagine even the lively Tom and Barbara
in that show being able to cut a rug in long rubber boots the way the Step Afrika! performers did in recreating this bit of South African culture.

Energy, style, considerable dance talent, a flair for cultural education and a little well-applied attitude -- all in all a great evening with a performing company that one hopes will swing through Billings again in the future.

Step Afrika!

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