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Traditional moves: members of the dance company Batoto Yetu.

From Angola With Joy
By Mae G. Banner

Batoto Yetu
Jacob’s Pillow, Aug. 9

Community Day at Jacob’s Pillow was the perfect time to see Batoto Yetu perform. For the scores of children in the audience, who had passed the previous four hours dancing on the lawn and having their faces painted in African-inspired stripes and dots, the young troupe’s matinee performance was a natural extension of the day’s activities.

It made sense that the 28 dancers of Batoto Yetu surged down the aisles of the Ted Shawn theater, singing and stamping, to reach the stage. As we breathed in the fresh smell that emanated from their whooshing raffia skirts, we saw that their faces were painted in the same designs as those on the kids in the audience. The dancers clapped the beat, and we clapped along with them.

Thus, we were plunged immediately into this dance theater group’s performance of Nzinga, a 500-year-old legend from Angola about the birth of a girl who would grow up to be a king—not a queen—of her people.

The dance drama was choreographed by Julio T. Leitao, born in Angola and raised in Portugal, who founded Batoto Yetu (“our children” in Swahili) in 1990 in Harlem. Leitao has said he and his family survived their forced migration (they left Angola when civil war began in 1975) by clinging fiercely to their heritage of dance, song and story.

Leitao trained in ballet in Portugal and later in New York City, where he performed with the Princeton Ballet, the Kathryn Posin Dance Company and the Eglevsky Ballet. He came home, culturally, when he began offering free lessons in African dance to kids on a playground in Harlem.

That gift has grown to embrace weekly classes in dance, math, and African history, plus sister programs in Brazil and Portugal. The Harlem group, often augmented by youngsters from the sister groups, does at least 10 performances each year. Performers must maintain above-average grades in school, and the quickest learners are required to help their peers.

In this way, Batoto Yetu resembles the Boys Choir of Harlem and the children’s classes affiliated with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Like Walter Turnbull of the Boys Choir and Arthur Mitchell of DTH, Leitao weaves together arts and academics, repairing what standard American culture has severed and restoring to children their sense of who they are, where they came from, and what they can become.

Watching these disciplined, joyful performers, aged 3 to 20, we saw their confidence in every lunge and jump-turn. Young men in tall feathered crowns wielded spears to hunt the leopard. Women in puppetlike gazelle masks (like those in The Lion King) fled the hunters, circling the stage. Everyone danced in celebration when the child Nzinga was born.

The African-based movement—bent knees and elbows, flat feet pounding the floor, active torsos and thrusting pelvises, legs that whip around and bring the whole body into a turn—told the story of a kingdom fighting for its life in the face of deceptive white missionaries and turncoats who kidnapped their own people for the slave trade.

Throughout, a tight group of four onstage musicians played the conga, djembe, and other drums, and even a long-bowed Angolan ancestor of the Brazilian berimbau. Their dynamic changes of rhythm, pitch and volume gave vivid life to scenes of celebration, mourning and danger.

Batoto Yetu’s all-dance program was the sleeper hit of the Pillow’s 1999 season. Nzinga is the troupe’s first foray in combining acting with dance. Though the youngsters’ mime was somewhat stiff, their dancing overflowed with style and spirit.

The multimedia mélange of puppets, masks, drumming, story and song totally connected with the young audience, many of whom left the theater to continue leaping and turning on the Pillow grounds. “That was hiphop,” a 7-year-old girl insisted.


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