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Review: Diasporic history, in which the movement is the message

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People are on the run, crouching, protecting their heads with their hands. People fight back, pick up and throw things. Some are struck by lightning, but among them people in white walk peacefully: ancestors, spirits. People are not alone.

This scenic image is the message-bearing climax of “Behind the South: Dances for Manuel,” which the Afro-Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro performs at the Joyce Theater, in an engagement that opened Tuesday. The title Manuel is the 20th century Colombian anthropologist and writer. Manuel Zapata Olivellawhose seminal novel “Changó, el Gran Putas” recounts 500 years of history of the African diaspora in the Americas.

The novel is an epic, but “Behind the South,” while inspired by the book, is largely a mixture of ritual theater and semi-abstract dance sections. In one scene, Maryeris Mosquera Batista appears, visibly pregnant under her immaculate white dress. A fabric umbilical cord connects her to William Camilo Perlaza Micolta. With undulations and contractions accentuated by the drum, she gives birth and removes the cord. He walks like a king, majestic, with his pectoral muscles trembling impressively, until he launches into a fiercely twisting dance.

In another scene, Yndira Perea Cuesta spins and the two layers of her white skirts billow and part in undulating waves. This is appropriate for Yemaya, the Yoruban orisha, or spirit, of water and motherhood. Perea also wears long blue-tinted braids, and when she spins, these spread and part as well. The visual effect is striking.

Identifying Perea as Yemaya is not difficult. But I had to ask company representatives to learn that Mosquera plays the mother of historical figure Benkos Biohó, a Mandingo enslaved in 1596, brought to what would become Colombia and who managed to escape to found a village of escaped slaves. Here as elsewhere, not all the content is visible, which makes certain parts a little mystifying.

As for meaning through dance, a section called “Diaspora” has the strongest choreographic idea. A figure (María Elena Murillo Palacios, wonderfully composed) emerges in a mask of woven ribbons, with other ribbons hanging down her front and back. Hips swaying gently from side to side, she shifts from foot to foot with small steps with each beat, marching in place like someone making merengue. Other dancers join her, masked in the same way (a bit like mummies), and do the same simple step, face to face, arms at their sides. Fixed in this position, they move in lines and rotating formations, while Murillo (who represents Elegua, the orisha of the roads) holds the center. Diaspora.

Otherwise, the message is in the movement, in its components and its roots. Much of the vocabulary of the movements resembles that of West African and Afro-Cuban dance, powerfully synchronized with live drumming. As the dancers walk and jump in rhythm, their shoulders move or roll. In an instant, they appear to be running in place, the magnitude of each forward step exaggerated into a leap, when, mid-step, they catch the momentum and reverse it, swinging and kicking toward the ‘back. This take is fascinating.

But the hour-long “Behind the South” doesn’t maintain that energy. The dancers, oddly enough, can sometimes look like professionals, rhythmically precise and authoritative, and sometimes like talented amateurs, vague and a little clumsy. It’s somewhat surprising when, mainly during solo breaks, they burst into grandeur. Otherwise, in the previous sections they seem to save gas for the last one, called “Epic”, which East sort of epic in the way it plays out over and over again. Then the spirits and ancestors join the people running and fighting, who cannot see them. In this dance, the audience can.

Sankofa Danzafro

Although Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

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