A spirited performance

All too often it becomes terribly easy to become overwhelmed by the everyday struggles we face as human beings. But as college students, we mostly worry about school, sometimes to an unreasonable degree; term papers loom, tests become D-Day, and the constant quest to keep our heads above water financially can consume our mindset. But at other times, we are awakened to the futility of our student troubles when we are reminded of our mortality, and unfortunately, it is usually through the tragedy of losing our loved ones and those we are close to. Only then do we get a hint of the human race’s daily struggle, shared across the world, to carry on with our lives.

Yet every once in a while, we become reawakened through a more affirmative and comforting reminder of our shared existence, and it comes forth in the art form of music and dance. This past week, The Spirit of Uganda tour graced the stage of the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, and with it they shared their roots and heritage, as well as their rhythms and movements, that have served as their comfort and tools of survival.

The Spirit of Uganda company consists of 22 Ugandan performers, both girls and boys, ages ranging from eight to 22 years old, representing the promise and potential of Ugandan youth. In Uganda, 2.4 million of the youth are orphans of HIV/AIDS, civil war, and acute poverty. The average annual income for a Ugandan is $300 a year, and over 50 percent of Ugandans live on less than $1 a day. Many children are unable to attend school and tap into their full potential. The ensemble is a project of Empower African Children, a non-profit organization based in both the United States and Uganda. These goodwill ambassadors, through their dances and music, were living proof of the liberating power of art, and the possibilities of children given the resources to truly succeed.

The performance began with an awe-inspiring and demanding dance entitled “Orunyege-Ntogoro.” It was originally a courtship dance of the Banyoro and Batoro people of Southeast Uganda. Traditionally, the dance gives everyone a chance to show off their talents. This ceremony was crucial for the young men – dancing showed a man’s intelligence and young men were encouraged to create as many unique dance moves as they could. Poor dancers could very well remain bachelors. The Spirit of Uganda company danced exuberantly, their moves graceful and styled, yet spunky and energetic. It was a dance that definitely set the mood for the rest of the night, culminating in a gesture that warmly invited you to join them.

The backdrop of the stage was a beautifully lit sky, at times deep blue with a moon, or golden and red with sun. Simple and majestic, it complemented the down-to-earth vibe of the Spirit of Uganda.

All performances were accompanied by live music, performed by the dancers themselves, as they acted as both singers and musicians. In fact, it could be said that the dancing also acted as instruments and in turn the instruments were the dancing, as the boys wore ebinyege, or leg rattles. The girls in the troupe wore ankle bells, or endege. Drums such as the large bakisimba, the long and narrow engalabi, the regular metered pulse of the empuunya, and the engoma served as a sturdy and intricate rhythmic structure upon which the dancers relied. At one point, one of the largest xylophones in the world, the amadinda, a log xylophone, was played by several of the young men.

The Artistic Director and Master of Ceremonies, Peter Kasule, emerged in between each dance (also frequently participating), and warmly educated the audience about the meanings of the dances and the traditions of the Ugandan people. As a musician, composer, and choreographer, Kasule researched, created, and arranged all the repertory for the troupe, and is also responsible for producing the company’s music recordings.

Kasule was the intermediary between the expressive dancers and the engaged audience, setting up the story of each piece. The experience was educational and enlightening, and featured dances influenced not only by Ugandan traditions but from neighboring peoples from countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Republic of Congo, shedding light on the diversity of the many cultures in the heart of Africa.

The athletic and musical abilities of the boys were first showcased in “Larakaraka,” as they danced fervently, at times with one knee raised perpendicular to the chest, one arm holding a hollowed and halved calabash or gourd, the other hand striking it with empagi, or modified bike spokes.

The third to last set included the audience in terms of percussion, through a call and response clapping, as well as integrated dance moves. The whole audience within the 472-seat theater participated with gusto, and the audience almost became the show itself for a brief period of time.

The performance ended with the gracious “Bakisimba.” It is a traditional dance of the court of Buganda, and is named after the aforementioned drum’s rhythm and the dancer’s movements which mirrors the king’s words of thanks. As the king cannot speak in public, the rhythm and the dancing speaks for him, and helps to translate his banana-wine induced celebratory mood.

The Spirit of Uganda was enlightening in more ways than one. It was an educational experience for audience members young and old, full of stories and tradition. But it was also a joyful reminder (however grounded it may be in the face of tragedy) of the transcendent value of art – a force which undeniably makes life as livable as it can be.