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Flash Review 1, 9-19: Exhilaration of Youth
An Explosive "Mukishi" at the New Vic

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

The sheer exhilaration of seeing confident youths explode with energy is reason alone to see Batoto Yetu in "The Mukishi" at the New Victory Theater, as I did in a matinee Saturday. On top of that, you'll be provoked, tested and physically moved by drummers, and transported with delightful enormous masks and costumes. And if you have children or young friends, take them along with the confidence that they'll enjoy it as much as you will.

The story is a legend of the Luba tribe (in Angola) about a great spirit who shows up in times of trouble to protect the village. Directed and choreographed by Julio Leitao, it is loosely enacted, but it gives some shape to the program. Drummers begin the show, entering one by one, goading the audience into a relaxed and curious state by playing a rhythmic "Simon Says" and conversing amiably, using drumbeats instead of words. When all four finally assemble, they fill the space with a vibrant forest of beats.

The dancers file down the aisle, their grass skirts brushing our elbows. The 20 performers rotate with each performance, but the cast I saw consisted mostly of girls, with all of the dancers 17 years old or younger. In general, the level of performance was truly admirable; one girl in particular (who seemed to be the youngest in the cast at perhaps seven years or so) commanded the stage like nobility, taking charge as the caller in a responsorial number. A male who appeared to be the oldest dancer had incredibly long limbs and the ability to craft them into sharp, twangy lines.

The puppet elements of the program were manifested in charming, oversized costumes: big hoops for swaying hips; gazelle headdresses; Mukishis with elaborate raggedy costumes and fiery eyes; and gigantic faces with yammering hinged mouths set beside dancing painted banners.

As with many forms of traditional dance from abroad, the movement is one element in the context of many juxtaposed parts. African dance has its numerous charms, chief among them nearly unbounded energy generated by contagious percussion, and a wonderful inclusive unity. As in "The Mukishi," it often integrates life rituals into the performance, giving relevance to art in daily life, and vice versa.

Batato Yetu, part of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 2 and Sunday at noon. For more info, please visit the New Victory web site.

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