40 Years of Muntu

Muntu dancers in action. Photo by Marc Monaghan.

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago celebrates 40 years of performance, education and preservation of African and African-American dance. The word muntu means “the essence of humanity” in Bantu and that essence, that human connect, is what the company brings into everything it does.  For the newcomer, a Muntu performance is quite the spectacle.  Not only traditional African dance, but contemporary offerings with drummers and musicians performing with such passion and dynamic energy, you can’t help but be swept up in the moment.  Amaniyea Payne, the Artistic Director since 1987, lists some of the company’s highlights over the years:  being able to take the company to other countries and continents (Africa, Mexico, Brazil), to be internationally recognized as a reliable source of this artistic form, to continue educating at summer dance intensives (Colorado Dance Festival, Bates Dance Festival), having the company at full-time status so the artists are able to survive on their craft, working with world-renowned artists on collaborative performances (Arthur Hall, Ronald K. Brown)…you get the picture.  “It’s a milestone to still be here, to still be performing, to still be enlightening people,” she said last week in a phone interview.  “We’re still looking at the institutionalization of our organization.  We want to continue to connect, to promote and to inspire.”

Dancer/choreographer Jeffrey Page. Photo by Djeneba Aduayom.

Payne, 58, has been an inspiration and influence to many young artists over the years, most notably a young boy from Indianapolis, IN that now has quite a reputation in the dance world.  Dancer/choreographer Jeffrey Page has been a guest choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, starred in Fela! on Broadway, got an Emmy nomination for his work on the NAACP Image Awards show, and choreographed the finale of the 2005 Billboard’s Music Awards.  His most famous collaboration – so far – has been working with Beyoncé on her 2007 world tour and choreographing the video for Girls Rule the World.  “I’ve known Jeffrey since he was 11 years old, since he started his mission to become a dynamic performing artist as well as choreographer,” said Payne.  Page affectionately calls her Mama Amaniyea and consistently asked to create something for Muntu.  She always answered, “in time that will happen”.  Well, it is happening now.  Page’s Beauty, I Am will make its world premiere this weekend as part of the New Voices/New Vistas program at the Harris Theater.  Page’s work will have the company showing a more contemporary flair.

Also on the program, See (In) Me a contemporary piece by former River North dancer Monique Haley;  Roff, a work inspired by the national dish of Senegal – “it’s tasty, a lot of spice, a lot of flavor, but stays traditional”; Djole, a traditional mask dance from Guinea, West Africe and Sierra Leone; Tribute: Afro-Caribe and Djembe Drum Talk featuring the Muntu musicians.

Muntu Dance Theatre presents New Voices/New Vistas on Saturday, July 21 at 7 pm, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr. Tickets are $15 – $175.  Call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheaterchicago.org.

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