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African Dance (and 'Rhythmic Motion') at the Marcus Center

Ko-Thi Dance Company returns to the concert stage

Jan. 24, 2017
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kothidrummerbydavidoverbeck
Photo credit: David Overbeck

Milwaukee’s venerable Ko-Thi Dance Company, now almost 50 years old, will present a major concert, Vibrations: Rhythmic Motion, next week in the Marcus Center’s Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall. The eight-part, intermission-free performance by the adult and children’s companies is almost entirely the creation of Ko-Thi’s fifth-generation artistic staff: choreographers Sonya Thompson and DeMar Walker and music director Kumasi Allen. Ko-Thi has not performed a major concert in Milwaukee since 2009.

“That’s because it’s too expensive to produce one,” founding artistic director and perpetual guiding light Ferne Caulker told me during a rehearsal I attended last week. “The Bader Foundation and Black Arts MKE are the reason we can do this one.”

Some observations from that rehearsal:

• The drumming is sensational. Allen and the other adult drummers started years ago in Ton Ko-Thi, the children’s company. They’re geniuses on djembe now. They fill the spaces between each other’s beats. The sound is colossal. Your breathing and heartbeat adapt to it. You can’t sit still. They unite the room, turning dancers and audience into a single organism. When the current children’s company dancers come onstage—four young boys, the next generation—they bring on drums and join their mentors. All the kids perform with discipline and heart, though some look exhausted.

• As the show’s prologue, Walker dances solo to a recorded spoken-word accompaniment with the repeated mantra, “If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.” The recorded voice continues over quiet music, explaining that the dances of Africa are thousands of years old, created by people who didn’t separate spirituality from everyday life. Walker doesn’t dance the piece full-out at this rehearsal. He walks it through to show the lighting designer how he’ll use the space. Even so, in his simple gestures and facial expressions, you see how deeply he values African dance and how much Ko-Thi means to his life.

• Caulker slips the pen and notebook from my hands as I watch the adult company dance. She writes: “Inside the repeat of the re-peat is where it’s at.” You can see what she means. The repetition of movements takes the dancers to new inner states—differently for each dancer. With slight but constant changes in the steps and patterns to follow, you’re drawn to individual souls. The fast-paced, high-energy movements release emotion. The rhythms of the dancing further complicate the complex rhythms of the drumming. It’s intoxicating. Nothing is mechanical. You see the dancers affecting one another. So much happens in the “repeat of the re-peat.”

• Ton Ko-Thi rehearses “Triba,” a West African dance. The kids beat sticks together and against the floor in tricky rhythms while they dance. You forget these are Milwaukee kids. You forget you’re in Milwaukee.

“This is a children’s performing ensemble,” Caulker emphasizes. “It’s not playtime, not a folk dance club. They’re learning to breathe, learning to listen to the drumming. These children are used to being entertained by TV, iPad, YouTube, their phones. They don’t engage their bodies. There’s no mind-body connectivity training in schools. We’re trying to make up for that in the four hours a week that we have them. When they come in here, they know something else is being asked of them that they may not have been asked before, which is to take themselves to the next level of their potential. And how do you insert that into a young person who already may have some self-esteem issues, is living in a world that doesn’t recognize or respect them because of the color of their skin and has low expectations of them to begin with? When they come in here, they know Mama Ferne doesn’t have any of that. Everybody starts off at a hundred percent with me. Your job is to maintain that hundred percent, and I’m going to try to help you stay at a hundred percent.”

Rehearsals are held at UW-Milwaukee’s Dance Department where Caulker taught for 45 years. She created a one-of-a-kind African and African Diasporic dance track for BFA students (it was killed last year because of the state-imposed budget cuts to the Peck School of the Arts.) So Caulker retired from teaching. She continues her lifelong work with Ko-Thi and keeps a relationship with the school’s dance department—helping grads with thesis projects and doing high school outreach.

“As long as I’m around,” she said, “my focus will be to provide contextual information to our kids. Where am I? Who is around me? What are we doing? What are our goals? If they can answer those questions, we can move forward. It’s taken me 70 years to articulate that that’s what my whole life has been about. Now I’m trying to practice it in my own life.”

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 and 3 in the Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call 414-273-7206, or visit MarcusCenter.org.

Thursday, Feb 02
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

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