Baba Chuck Davis had a way of standing out in a crowd. A mountain of a man who stood six feet six inches tall, he had no choice. But Davis's stage presence, somehow, was even larger than his frame.
Though he was usually soft-spoken, countless audiences that saw his work at the American Dance Festival or performances by his African American Dance Ensemble over the past four decades could attest that his unamplified, booming baritone easily filled venues from Durham's Carolina Theatre and Reynolds Industries Theater to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where DanceAfrica, an annual festival he created to showcase the dance and music of the African diaspora, has played yearly since 1977.
Traditionally, Davis began each performance with a literal call to the audience: Ago, the word in the Twi dialect of West Africa for "listen." The audience would reply in kind with Ame: "I am paying attention."
It seems uncanny that a voice so robust is now stilled. Davis's death Sunday morning at age eighty, after a lengthy battle with cancer, closed a dance career that spanned six decades. In that time, the Raleigh native and long-time Durham resident amassed an impressive collection of honors. In 2000, he was listed among the Dance Heritage Coalition's list of America's "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures."
A 2004 Dance Magazine Award called him a "mentor to virtually every black dance company in America." The New York Dance and Performance Awards, aka the Bessies, gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2014, and after at least sixteen main-stage performances over the years, the American Dance Festival dedicated its 2015 season to him.
Though he taught and performed across five continents, his relationship with one—Africa—was the focal point of his creative life. Since the 1970s, he traveled there more than fifty times, immersing himself in the cultures and art forms of Western Africa and bringing them back to teach and stage in the United States.
"He kept constructing these bridges to somewhere else," says Donna Faye Burchfield, director of the school of dance at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, who was dean of the American Dance Festival's school while Davis taught there. In our culture, where black bodies still constitute a radical presence, Burchfield notes how Davis established his own at the festival, decades earlier, by walking the campus in long, brightly colored African robes, not the typical leotards and tights.
"We had never seen anyone conducting dance under these circumstances," Burchfield recalls. "When he called the circle we gathered in on Duke's east lawn a bantaba [a Mandinka term meaning a gathering place], we had to look up the word. It was all extremely radical in 1985."
Burchfield connects the diasporic longing that theorist and poet Fred Moten writes about in The Undercommons with Davis's collection and transference of African folkways, idioms, and terminology in North America. As members of the African American Dance Ensemble surrounded ADF students in one ritual performance, Burchfield recalls, "We were at Duke University, but we were simultaneously somewhere else altogether, enacting something from very far away."
Former AADE dancer Christal Brown, now a professor of dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, says of Davis, "I learned what it meant to be African American because of him. Growing up, it was theoretical. People came from Africa, bla-di-bla." But traveling through different countries as the company toured, Brown realized, "Wow—a part of me came from Africa! These people and this information lived! Africans and African Americans are living out their lineage in truth every day."
Brown always took note of what she calls the liminality of Davis's work. Deb Royals, artistic director at Justice Theater Project, likewise remembers the last night of a production of The Color Purple, when a performance with Davis turned into something else. In one scene, on an impulse, Royals told the running crew and technicians to join the actors on stage.
"I said, Let's all go to the Juke Joint, and the whole thing came alive for us," she says. "It wasn't a performance anymore; we were there. And in that moment, we were all learning and reveling and joyful."
Those qualities are also familiar to those who've experienced performances in recent years by the AADE. The insistent polyrhythms of the djembe and talking drums in the live percussion orchestra propel dancers across the stage in impassioned invocations. The movers spin, their arms flung out, scattering energies in all directions. At some moments, they appear to beckon us—at others, the heavens—in exuberant gestures of welcome.
As the viewers become engaged, clapping to the beats and joining in the dance, the traditional divisions between audience and performers melt away, in what dancer/choreographer Stafford Berry calls the holism of African dance.
"The audience and we are in the same space, the same place, the same perfect moment," Berry says. What he terms the moment of ubuntu, or shared humanity, "allows us to know we are essential to each other."
"That's why Baba Chuck says, I am because you are because we are," Berry goes on. "It's a moment in which we know who we are as people in the world."
Despite undergoing chemotherapy, Davis remained creatively active through the last week of his life. After a stand as a guest choreographer at N.C. State University in March, he'd begun collaborating with Justice Theater Project for its upcoming production of Porgy and Bess. AADE member Ivy Burch says that Davis had written out and discussed the choreography and production notes for what will likely be his final composition, Mendiani, a celebration work for the ADF's fortieth anniversary in North Carolina.
Davis was constantly creating, Berry recalls. "In the back of his mind there was that laboratory where he was making more space for people to be able to experience life and dance. He couldn't turn it off." Royals notes that after every performance of Black Nativity, Davis would say, "I had another thought, why don't we ...?" Though that voice is now silent, his work still speaks, in a universal tongue.
Ago, it says: listen. And we shall.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Remembering Baba Chuck Davis."