Arts Desk

Step Afrika Goes Cold and Classical

Step Afrika is one of the Washington region’s most original dance companies. Specializing in the African-American tradition of step dancing—that is, creating multiple rhythms through stomping feet and clapping hands—the company performs smooth, well-rehearsed creations all over the country.

But familiarity breeds forgetfulness, and it’s easy to lose sight of just how unique the company is. Its current collaboration with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, though, brings that fact home big time. Yes, Step Afrika’s nine dancers, plus artistic director Brian Williams, are currently in Alaska, preparing to perform with an 80-piece orchestra in a show premiering this weekend.

It was all at the request of conductor Randall Craig Fleischer, who contacted Williams out of the blue. “He was dropping his daughter off at dance school and saw a Dance magazine sitting the lobby; it was the issue that Step Afrika had a nice feature in,” explained Williams by phone from Anchorage. “He was intrigued by what he read and sent me a cold email. Said he wanted to collaborate on a project.” That was last year.

Williams was similarly intrigued, and the two conversed by Skype for months, with the dancer sending videos and the musician responding with audio tracks. The orchestra couldn’t afford to commission an entirely new piece from the company, so Williams suggested Fleischer provide a score that would complement Step Afrika’s existing repertoire.

The result is a collaboration in which the dancers act as just another instrument in Fleischer's works—albeit one that plays a very prominent role—while also providing a little eye candy to an audience unused to getting it. The pieces that the ensemble will perform include a Zulu-inspired piece that’s backed almost solely by percussionists; another based on the hymn “Wade in the Water” that will feature a full choir and two soloists; and a dance that was originally accompanied by electronic music.

“I won’t lie,” said Williams. “[Fleischer and I] were both were very honest, and said, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work.’” But once the company made it up to scenic Anchorage, everything fell into place. “We got on stage with the symphony and we heard the music—which is totally different from recorded—and its capacity to respond to what we were doing, and we thought, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna work.’”

The company has been rehearsing in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts all week and will be premiering the show on Saturday night to an almost sold-out house. And who knows? The next step could be Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, or its Baltimore sibling. “I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” said Williams. “It’s opened up possibilities.”

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