Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble
In a career spanning over 50 years of dance, choreographer Chuck Davis—"Baba Chuck" to the dance community—has been instrumental in bringing African dance to a number of unlikely venues for the first time. The avuncular, 6-foot-5 mountain of a man chuckles as he recalls a particularly audacious exploit from last year, when he was the recipient of the 2008 Capezio Dance Award. "From what I'm told, whoever receives the Capezio—they come up in their suits and ties and they're dressed to the nines.
"When they called my name, I came down the aisle with three Ntori dancers," Davis recalls. "We stood there for eight minutes while they ran through my life. Then Carmen [de Lavallade, who won the award the previous year] came out. And that's when we danced my acceptance speech."
Davis' laughter fills the room. "The audience went absolutely ballistic. Number one, I'd pulled my stomach in so tight I couldn't breathe. Two, this was the first time anything like that had been done: No one had ever danced their acceptance speech there before."
Davis was speaking in the midst of preparations for this weekend's two nights of celebration of the 25th anniversary of his African American Dance Ensemble, which he brought to Durham in 1984.
Any conversation with the 72-year-old dance elder—whom the Dance Heritage Coalition included among the first 100 Irreplaceable American Dance Treasures in 2000—is likely to invoke a vivid mini-seminar in dance history. As we talk, he recalls being discovered by Babatunde Olatunji the night of the famous 1963 March on Washington—and a much less cordial reception at Howard University, two years prior. Among stories of coming of age in New York in the time of Geoffrey Holder, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Eleo Pomare, Davis savors the tale of sneaking into dance classes at Julliard on 122nd Street. There's still a note of marvel in his voice when he says, "Mary Hinkson would not call the roll. And that's where I had my first Graham technique class."
But anyone expecting Davis to rest on his laurels doesn't know Baba Chuck all that well. After a summer stint at the American Dance Festival, the choreographer has been traveling the country as executive producer of DanceAfrica, the largest and oldest continuing traveling festival of dance and music from Africa and the African diaspora, now in its 31st season. We caught Davis between trips to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where the dance program is restaging Blue Grass/ Brown Earth, his recent collaboration with Carolina Chocolate Drops. In November he returns to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he choreographs for St. Joseph's Home for Boys and Resurrection Dance Theater. If the paperwork goes through, he'll be spending Thanksgiving in Cuba: For the past four years, he's been working on a project to permit him to choreograph a new dance for the critically heralded Ballet Folklórico Cutumba. On January 1, he'll be working on his birthday, as usual, shuttling between First Night Raleigh celebrations the night before and the traditional Kwanzaa festivities at the Durham Armory.
Between those dates, his African American Dance Ensemble celebrates its 25th anniversary in performances this Friday and Saturday at Durham's Carolina Theater. Davis' plans for the concert include, in his words, something totally unexpected. Its name is Kutoka Kwaumati, Tuwa Moja (Out of Many, We are One). It was inspired by the words of Rush Limbaugh—although the word "motivated" might be more accurate.
"It's a salute to President Obama," Davis says. "One of the themes of his campaign was a constant referral that there has to be change. I hear it in the concept of Sankofa, from Ghana, and the Asante Adinkra symbol—to spring to the future, you must look back to where you came from."
"The night Limbaugh said this man must be destroyed, [I said,] 'Let me do what I'm noted for—use my art to make my statement,'" Davis says. "Perhaps I can do something to help scratch those awful statements from people's hearts."
The concert also features Heroes and Heroines, a new work by Associate Artistic Director Stafford Berry Jr. It uses Umfundalai, a system of pan-African dance techniques combined with African-American dance forms that was devised by Dr. Kariamu Welsh at Temple University in the 1960s as she studied the dances in the cultures in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Gabon and across Southern Africa. Where traditional dancers would consider it taboo to blend or change their individual dance styles, Welsh sought to unite the essence of what she found in her travels. Indeed, the name she chose for this technique of fusions is the Kiswahili word for "essence."
Davis will also restage a classic work from his repertoire, Powerful Long Ladder, from 1971. The name comes from a book of poetry by Owen Dodson—the man at Howard University who encouraged Davis to change majors from nursing to theater and dance. "He was my mentor," Davis says, before quoting the lines that provide the piece's title: "It takes a powerful long ladder to climb to the sky/ An catch the bird of freedom for the dark."
Another work on the program is set to "Four Women," Nina Simone's gripping examination of a quartet of racial composites in the 1960s. Jazz vocalist Lois Deloatch, whom Indy critic Chris Toenes praised in a 2008 review as "a caretaker of the music's history, an advocate of its redemptive power," will sing the music for this work. "Each woman is represented by different percussion instruments from Africa," Davis notes, "and Lois is a jazz artist—so sensitive to musical changes and emotions. She'll be fantastic."
In the concert, music director Kwabena Osei Appiagyei will present Gome Mashine, described in press materials as "a traditional work from Ghana, using indigenous instruments."
But this weekend's most important "indigenous instrument" will be the feet and vision of Chuck Davis, a dance treasure who has called Durham home for a quarter of a century.