Many scholars have studied the dance forms transplanted from Africa to the Americas, but there was no need to read a heavy book to see what the dances of the African diaspora have in common: Saturday night’s shared bill at the Byron Carlyle — featuring Ife Ile, Afro Contempo, and Afua Hall Dances — was a delightful demonstration of the African traditions of Cuba, Peru, and Jamaica.
The culmination of the Ife Ile Afro-Cuban Dance Festival, the program was heavy on choreography from festival founder and Ife Ile director Neri Torres, with solos early on devoted to Afro-Cuban orishas. Of particular note was Asha Darbeau, who was spectacular as Yemaya, the deity of the ocean: her sinuous hand gestures recalled the Haitian snake god while her undulating hips unleashed wave upon wave of blue and white fabric in a train that covered half the stage — and at the climactic moment was supported by two male dancers who disappeared beneath the costume.
Rather than chop the night into three separate programs, Torres integrated short pieces by her collaborators throughout the evening. This worked particularly well because her fellow choreographers also appeared as dancers in Ife Ile. Afro Contempo, directed by Marcela Diaz, received the biggest ovation of the night with a competition among four players who sat astride wooden boxes, beating out complex rhythms, before rising one by one to show off steps that ranged from a close cousin to African American tap dancing, to a stylized bull fight, to an even closer cousin to West African dance. Afua Hall Dances charmed the audience with a duet between two gingham-clad rural women that infused contemporary and West African movement with everyday gestures from the Jamaican countryside.
A rousing closing number drew from the ferocious Afro-Cuban Palo religion, with dancers wrapped in rafia shaking their heads and making terrifying faces while whipping their arms and legs into impossible explosions before softening into the genial social dance, yuca, with all that explosive energy redirected into flirtation. Every year, Ife Ile reminds believers and introduces new fans to Cuba’s rich African dance traditions. This year it was especially nice to see those traditions danced in a wider context.