By Jessica Lockhart
Sankofa Danzafro’s Accommodating Lie is a bold work of art that delivers an indispensable history lesson.
Sankofa Danzafro at Boch Shubert Theater on February 27
On the second to the last day of Black History Month, the audience in the Boch Center were given an unflinching look at the horrors of slavery and racism endured by Blacks over the centuries. The gifted Afro-Colombian Sankofa Danzafro Company presented Accommodating Lie, a dance that was uncomfortable to watch, but oh so important to witness.
This was not a joyous and uplifting example of African dance. Dancers were bound and tied with ropes, so they couldn’t escape; they were forced to wear straw skirts and entertain the white folks; they were forced to stand in a line and be auctioned off for the best price. The performers were not smiling; they stared at the audience members with a steely focus that was terrifying.
The set design featured a huge, tall wall of hung straw. The dancers would appear from behind it as they walked on stage. It was a striking visual barrier that suggested a form of imprisonment: they had to emerge from it and return back through it after every scene. There were three musicians onstage, a group that featured drums, native flute, marimba, and voice. The hour-long dance was presented in eight sections, broken up into solos, duets, and ensemble pieces.
A solo featured Yindira Perea Cuesta, whose wrists were constrained, tied to long ropes held by two others. She tried to break free, but her captors were too strong and determined. After much struggling as she contorted her body, she eventually freed herself. Then, after a series of defiant gestures and movements, she became still — taking in her freedom. She slowly turned to the audience members, sent them a defiant glare, and walked offstage. The next solo was danced by Yeison Moreno Cordoba: he appeared wearing a traditional grass skirt. His body began to shake and quiver, moving so frantically that it seemed his body was ready to break. The pace quickened as the drumming increased and he began to run in circles. He fell and got up, and then fell down again and again until he collapsed. Dancer Luis Armando Viveros Mosquera entered the scene and scooped him up in his arms, cradling him. Quietly and carefully he gently placed him down on the ground to rest. The moment was unbearably sweet and kind; we watched him as he quietly cared for a broken soul. Mosquera then began what could have been a ritual, what seemed to be a “calling of the demons,” an attempt to release them both by breaking a spell. The movements that ran through his body were fierce and fast, building to an impressive intensity. And then he suddenly stopped. Frozen still. The two men stood, looked blankly out into the audience, and slowly left the stage.
Another scene showed six dancers standing in a row, as one by one they walked forward and stopped, and then returned back to the lineup. It resembled the action on a fashion show runway, where the models walk to the front of the catwalk, stop and let others see them, and walk away. But this was a different spectacle — this was about slave trading. A voice, speaking in Spanish, was auctioning them off. He was informing the crowd how much each person cost and that the bidding was in full force. The human beings on sale didn’t struggle because they were afraid for their lives. The buyers were lying to themselves that their actions are justified. This section was exceptionally powerful and disturbing, driven by the intensity of the dancers. At one point, the performers broke into full body movement, their legs kicking, their torsos bending, their arms gesturing. The dramatic subtext was obvious: although they were obeying the authorities that were abusing them, the slaves were internally defiant. Again, the dances sent us their unending stares. No smiles, no grimaces — just resolve.
The dancers were costumed by Diana Echandia in sharp-looking pants and suit jackets, which served as a contrast to the grass skirts. It is important to know why director and choreographer Rafael Palacios named his company “Sankofa,” which means “to return to the root.” He founded the company in 1997 in Medellin, Colombia, and the name refers to an African philosophy that proposes to “know the past as a condition to understand the present — as a way to see the future.” Thus the timeliness and timelessness of the troupe’s political aesthetic: understanding the horror of slavery then is essential in seeing how and why racism exists today. And why police violence has escalated because of the growth of the Black Lives Matters movement. Over the centuries, the energy of Black liberation has been violently contained. With Accommodating Lie, Palacios and his exceptional dancers have created a bold work of art that delivers an indispensable history lesson.
Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award-winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.