DANCE / The colour, spectacle and rhythm thing - Urban Bush Women / Oxford Playhouse, Koffi Koko / ICA, London

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The Independent Culture
Is it possible or, more to the point, necessary to steer clear of words like 'rhythm', 'colour' and 'spectacle' when talking about African dance? These days, accusations of laziness, post-colonial insensitivity or just plain racism are frequently levelled against anyone who dares to enjoy the rhythmic complexity of Kenyan or Ghanaian dances, or appreciate the bright-hued costumes and sunny mood of a ceremonial procession. And yet black British troupes like Adzido don't seem in the least ashamed of the irrepressible exuberance that is their principal source of appeal.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's New York-based Urban Bush Women, whose dances, songs and stories explore the performers' collective African- American heritage, show that rhythm and colour are intrinsic to this heritage. In Nyabinghi Dreamtime, Zollar's posse of black females with attitude enacts the pared-down rituals and ceremonies of Rastafarian culture on a candle-lit stage. Easier said than done: Junior Wedderburn's percussion score can't disguise the mulishness of the choreography and Zollar fails to translate Babylon and Zion into theatre. Only the dancers' fractious energy keeps you engaged.

Solidarity stemming from gender rather than race is the theme of Girlfriends, a pyjama party for four room-mates who skylark into the early hours. Unfortunately, Zollar plumps for the sort of exaggerated mime which, if spoken, would be a slow, insistent shout. By the time the quartet prepares for the work's single joke - a woman ripping off her bathrobe to reveal scanty lingerie - you have come to the realisation that the most mundane African dance step is better than 10 minutes of bad mime.

In Shelter, Zollar and her dancers attempt to create a language of movement rooted in black ancestry yet capable of suggesting the brutal realities of city life. But the work is hindered by spoken texts bulging with cliches ('it could happen to you'), and a limited vocabulary whereby dancers simply bang their fists and stamp their feet to express anger and frustration.

At the ICA in London, Koffi Koko offered a far more persuasive, if enigmatic portrait of semi-nomadic existence and urban reality in his D'une rive a l'autre. In the darkness, a man slaps and punches the sound out of his body: pummelling his chest, he reproduces the thud of gunshot; ramming a cupped hand to his arm, he shatters the air around him. Assisted by three musicians, Koko leads us from the rural environment of his native Benin to the big and hostile city, shifting from meditative ritual to fear and paranoia and, finally, an uneasy acceptance of metropolitan life.

The visual territory, largely allusive, is brought to life through Koko's extraordinary powers of suggestion: a food bowl - his only prop - suddenly becomes a soldier's helmet as he relives the trauma of an encounter (imagined or real?) with the military. Koko illustrates that there is far more to African dance than industrious drumming, loud colour statements and desultory hip-swaying. His character, or spirit, refuses to be subsumed by the dance, and yet movement leads him into an almost trance-like state. His rituals borrow from African and Western dance forms but look like something entirely other.

While the Urban Bush Women offer few variations on the in-your-face kind of black dance, in Koko's performance you see what Martha Graham defined as the psyche of race brought into focus through dance.

'Dance Umbrella' continues with Urban Bush Women tonight at the Hackney Empire (081-985 2424). On tour to 28 Oct. Details: 081-741 4040

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