Review: Afro-Colombian Dancing Reawakens the Joyce Theater

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The motion is small, a little twisting in the hips. But like a tremor before an earthquake, it signals larger shifts. Soon, drums kick in and dancers explode into percussive action — shaking, undulating, whacking the air with the force of those drums.

Wonderful moments like this recur in “Accommodating Lie,” the hourlong work that the Afro-Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro has brought for its return to the Joyce Theater this week. And those explosions of live drumming and dancing reawaken a stage that the Omicron surge had kept dark and quiet since late December.

But as the work’s title suggests, Rafael Palacios, the company’s director and choreographer, has more in mind. A program note characterizes the work as a “powerful call for awareness” that seeks to dismantle stereotypes “about and around” the Black body, addressing the sexualization and exotification of people of African descent across centuries of slavery and racism.

Several times, the dancers line up across the stage and a vocalist starts calling out prices in Spanish. It’s an auction, connecting this performance, this display of Black bodies, to the slave trade.

Yet the auctioneer’s voice, nested in drums, is so quiet and unemphatic that you could almost miss it. That’s characteristic of this production, whose message and delivery are both curiously muted.

Much of the symbolism comes through scenic design (by Álvaro Tobón), starting with the curtain at the rear of the stage, made of straw like that used in the skirts once worn by enslaved Afro-Colombian people. Through this barrier, the dancers enter and exit, the entangling strands occasionally clinging to their bodies. Some of them also wear those skirts, tugging at the twine to show how they chafe. Or a dancer might trail more rope, like a leash held by other performers who wind it around her in maypole fashion.

The dance proceeds in a series of episodes, slow and stretched out before they erupt, accompanied as much by quiet flute, lullabies and tick-tocking marimba as by batteries of percussion. A man who seems to battle unseen opponents roars and collapses. Another man picks him up, in a pietà-shaped cradle carry, then sets him back down before helping him rise again with a convulsive, windmilling, resurrecting dance.

Even such swells of intensity, though, feel a little underpowered or flickering. Even as the strength of the African diasporic connection to the drum is augmented with a hint of hip-hop, something seems tentative, perhaps withheld. Could this be part of the message, a refusal to go full out for an audience?

Or is that just Sankofa’s style? The work does have a big finish. The full cast of eight dancers advances in ranks, throwing down their most emancipatory, drum-driven steps and then staring down the audience from the lip of the stage. The auctioneer starts up again, now with higher prices. Going once. Going twice. Sold.

Sankofa Danzafro

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, joyce.org.

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