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Flash Review 1, 3-6: Suffering and Smiling
Seeing the Light at Symphony Space

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

A few hours after we posted Flash Obituary 2-29, The Importance of Being Ofra Haza, I learned that my friend Ofra probably died of AIDS. Worse, the inference was that she had waited until it was too late to do anything about it, dying as she did 13 days after she entered the hospital. The Times quoted a doctor saying that if this was true, Ofra in effect died of embarrassment. In the year 2000. When, I thought, there was less stigma about this. When AIDS is, by most reports, if not yet cured, at least a manageable disease. Ofra's death was now not only tragic, it was needless. When I learned that a troupe made up of 18 Ugandan orphans of AIDS victims would be performing at Symphony Space Sunday, under the auspices of the World Music Institute and the Kennedy Center, I knew this would be the perfect way to say Kaddish for Ofra.

To understand why a 42-year old woman would mask her AIDS condition even at the cost of her life, in the year 2000, we have to look to Africa. (Ofra's parents came to Israel from Yemen.) In Zimbabwe, for example, 26 percent of adults aged 15-49 are living with HIV/AIDS, according to a recent story in Newsweek. In the U.S., the number is .18 percent. And in Nigeria, we find a striking parallel--and perhaps partial explanation--to Ofra's story. There, a couple of years ago, another international world beat star, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, died of AIDS. Fela, too, refused to the last minute to acknowledge the cause of his illness. In Fela's case, this denial has had disastrous consequences. To this day, the Nigerian youth who idolize him--and his promiscuous lifestyle--refuse to believe that someone as macho as Fela could have gotten AIDS. And they continue to emulate his lifestyle.

I'm listening right now to one of Fela's hits, "Shuffering and Smiling." It has a buoyancy that stands in direct contrast to the bleakness of Fela's death. One might have thought that an ensemble made up of 18 orphans of AIDS would be mostly about suffering. But in fact, the Children of Uganda, which I saw Sunday, is, more than anything, about smiling. The smile starts in their feet, rounds into their hips, mobilizes their torsoes, activates the plane of their shoulders, and then bursts out of their faces. It's in their singing, too, light and high, floating out over the dancers and into our hearts. It runneth over in the smile, physique, carriage, and bouncy dance of Frank Katoola, the adult director and choreographer for the troupe, and also the narrator for several of the pieces.

I sensed that the choreography had a basis of traditional African gestures but had been tweaked with some modern inflections, particularly in the arms, whose movement seemed less one-dimensional, and more complex than I'm used to in African dance. Katoola confirmed this.

Of course, where all this joy jars is when you remind yourself that these are children who have lost parents to this dread disease. Their tour is called the "Tour of Light 2000." The good news is that the light refers not just to that I've detailed above, but to that thrown on AIDS in Africa. They tour Uganda, too, to campaign for prevention. Their home is the Daughters of Charity Orphanage, the largest orphanage in the capital city of Kampala.

The lesson Sunday was broader: I was reminded again of the infinite resiliency of children. And of the resiliency that is the gift of dance, and sometimes music. It's a lesson I will try--try--to take with me into the next week, and beyond. Last week, I listened to Ofra's music a lot, and could only think of her loss and ours. This week, I will be guided by those smiles--and by the light.

To find out whether and when the Tour of Light is coming to your town--as well as how you can get involved--please visit the web site of the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation, at http://www.uccf.org/

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