Dance: Adzido, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

What a woman! You can understand why Adzido, Britain's pan-African dance ensemble, simply had to create their colourful epic spectacle Yaa Asantewaa – Warrior Queen. She is a legendary heroine in Ghana, where, in 1900, in her mid-sixties, she stepped in to defend the honour of her Asante people. Their king and several chiefs had already been captured (by Major Baden-Powell, later the founder of the Scouts) and sent into exile. When the British Governor demanded to sit on their sacred Golden Stool, the remaining chiefs hesitated about fighting him over the insult until Yaa Asantewaa, Queenmother of Ejisu, declared: "If you men of Asante will not go forward, then we women will."

An army of thousands followed her in three battles. Employing new methods of stockade-building and camouflage and the use of drums for psychological advantage, she defeated the British twice, but was finally overcome by superior numbers and weaponry. It was her turn for exile, and she died in the Seychelles after 21 years.

To tell the story, Adzido and the director, Geraldine Connor, use words by Margaret Busby, music by Danso Abiam, and George Dzikunu's choreography. Their spectacle is a big one, a co-production with the African and Caribbean Music Circuit, Black Voices, the Pan-African Orchestra of Ghana and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Yaa Asantewaa herself is played by four performers: a speaker, a dancer, a singer and a very accomplished tiny tot for her child self.

Three lead singers, billed as ancestral spirit voices and hidden behind enormous masks in the most splendid of Clary Salandy's fine costumes, are prominent all through the action, but the whole large cast is busy all the time – not only the narrators and soloists, but also those forming the ordinary masses. Processions pass through the audience; bustling crowds dance on stage. Yet it is often the little things that prove most striking, such as the way the three principal women remove their shoes and lie down curled as if for sleep to suggest the heroine's death: so simple but so vivid. A comical way of marching marks out the British as much as the white half-masks on their faces.

Starting with the magical origins of the Golden Stool, the text and action take us through the history of the Asante, from their first king, in the 17th century, to the agitation for self-government – with Yaa Asantewaa's memory a strong inspiration – that led to independence in 1957. As straight narrative it would be instructive, even stirring, but prolix. What gives it life is the action and the music, from the thrilling horns that start the show, to the drums (with Ghanaba as guest soloist), pipes, fiddle and other native instruments and voices that keep going throughout.

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