When Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of DanceAfrica America, answers his phone, it's an unexpected blast of '60s flower power. "Peace and love," the 59-year-old Davis greets his callers--and he doesn't hang up, even on a lowly voice mail system, without including "peace," "love" or both in his sign-off.
Davis--whose Los Angeles incarnation of the international dance festival, entitled DanceAfrica/LA, comes to Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex from Thursday through next Sunday--says his catch phrase does not represent an attempt to hark back to the Age of Aquarius. "I was saying that back in the 1950s ," he says earnestly in a telephone conversation from St. Petersburg, Fla., a stop on the festival's first nationwide tour, which includes Miami; Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia; Washington; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Chicago, as well as the festival's first Los Angeles visit. "That is my belief, it's what I believe . I have a strong belief that the universe, as tumultuous as it is, will be brought to discipline by dancers and musicians.
"Because, couldn't you just see it if a dancer was in charge of the war department, and somebody would say: 'Oh, can we go to war now?,' " Davis continues. "And [the dancer] would say: 'Oh, no, we have a modern class right now, so the war will have to be delayed until after class.' But after class there is a rehearsal, and after rehearsal, there is a performance. So the war gets pushed back forever and ever!"
Some of what Davis says--including his novel make-dance-not-war-theory--begs to be taken just shy of seriously. Davis, for example, attributes the curiosity that led to his lifelong interest in dance history to being born under the sign of Capricorn ("as a Cap, my role is the inquisitive side") and happily attributes this day's respite from Florida's recent raging weather as a sign that the heavens were pleased to have his African dancers drop in for a visit.
Yet there must be value in Davis' amiably flaky world view; it has led to a dance festival of extraordinary longevity (the first DanceAfrica festival was produced by Davis at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1977). In an era of shrinking arts dollars, the festival is the recipient of a $600,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as wide-ranging corporate support from AT&T;, Target stores and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. And Davis' own seemingly relentless happiness and dedication to a Utopian society is something one becomes, in the course of a conversation, more likely to envy than to criticize.
Davis is also quite serious about the history of African dance. Each year, Davis--who teaches at Duke University as well as heading his own dance company, African American Dance Ensemble, in Durham, N.C.--takes groups of students to Africa to study. "They [the students] are black, white, orange and green. . . . When we go in, because we are respectful of the traditions and the heritage, the doors and barriers just fall away," Davis says. "Every morning at 7 a.m., I teach class on the beach. Then we go out into the countryside. In studying the dance of the community, you have to do more than movement. We are not in studios; we are out there with our bare feet on the ground under the big tree."
Davis insists the dancers become involved in village life, planting peanuts and potatoes, hauling in fishnets, feeding chickens. "It is that kind of energy we bring to DanceAfrica America," he says. "We are about more than dance, we are about living. We are about culture, we are about sharing and respect and learning more about our heritage."
Davis refuses to call the events at DanceAfrica America "performances." Rather, he calls the days spent in various cities a "sharing." "We are not entertainers, we are edu- tainers," he says.
"In DanceAfrica, we have a central theme, and we are all related; even though we are different companies, it is not: 'You do a routine, now I'll do a routine.' Everything we do follows a [common] story line."
In Los Angeles, the festival features three dance companies: Davis' ensemble, which will present a variety of traditional African dances; the Santa Monica-based Ballet Foclorico Do Brasil, which focuses on Afro-Brazilian dances and capoeira, a martial art created by African slaves for their self-defense, and Rennie Harris/Pure Movement, a Philadelphia street dance company that combines hip-hop with traditional African movement (the company has made concert and video appearances with pop performers Boyz II Men, Salt-N-Pepa and Chaka Khan).
Says Davis: "One of the main focuses is to preserve as authentically as we possibly can the dance styles that were originated on the continent of Africa. They could be altered as they pass through Brazil, as they pass through Cuba, as they pass through the Caribbean, as they pass through Australia . . . if it's African-related, then it's DanceAfrica in focus. On your program out there in L.A., we are going to show what has happened to those movements in the U.S. as we present the hip-hop. It will be hip-hop on a whole different level than what is performed in the streets."
The festival also includes an African Marketplace Nov. 4 and 5 on the Street of the Arts, adjacent to the Luckman complex, featuring free performances by music and dance groups including Sona Sane, Asiyo Belema/Ethiopian Dance Company, Zadonu African Music and Dance Company, Nigerian Talking Drums and Kouman Kele/Nzingah Camera.
Dancers will also mingle with the community, offering master classes, visiting schools and going to nursing homes in an attempt to honor the elder generation in the tradition of an African village.
"We go to the senior citizens to say thank you, and to ask their permission to continue," Davis says. "There is an old Bantu saying: 'The old people cleared the path that the young people walk on.' " In each city the festival organizes a "council of elders" who are honored during the proceedings; included is a candlelight memorial for dancers and musicians who helped launch DanceAfrica America and have since died.
Davis says he will act as the griot , or storyteller, who greets the audience and leads them through the events. If there is time, Davis added, on the evenings of Nov. 5 and 6, the public will be invited to participate with the artists in an African village-style celebration called the bantaba , a Mandingo word meaning "dancing ground."
In some cities, DanceAfrica America has even reached out to dance critics, offering seminars to prepare reviewers for what they will see. "They [reviewers] are not that familiar with the traditional dance forms that are being performed," Davis says. "We assist with terminology, so we can get away from: 'Oh, they were shaking their hips,' and 'flying boobies' and that kind of stuff. We want to get into a much more human, a much more earth way of saying it."
Since its 1977 inception, Davis says, DanceAfrica has been about bringing people together. The first festival, produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featured seven African American dance companies performing together for the first time. "I said, instead of us having a season, let us share it," remembered Davis. "When the word got around New York that here we had all these dance companies coming together under a single theme, it just sort of mushroomed and took off from there."
Davis, a North Carolina native whose father was a construction worker there and whose mother worked as a domestic, said his first career goal was to become a nurse, and he entered the Navy with that goal in mind. However, his curiosity about the Afro-Cuban social dances he and his friends were doing at the time led him in a different direction. Besides, he says: "I decided that dance was the prevention, and nursing was the cure--and I'd rather be part of the prevention than the cure."
Throughout the 1960s, Davis studied dance, as well as involving underprivileged kids in the arts as part of Durham's American Dance Festival and other programs. In 1972, he formed his first troupe, the Chuck Davis Dance Company.
Since then, Davis has served as a National Endowment for the Arts panelist and sits on the board of the North Carolina Arts Council. And he makes visits to Brazil and Africa several times yearly.
"It used to be that if you were in the world of ballet, you were in the world of ballet--you never took a modern class, and God forbid you would take a class in African dance," he mused. "But dancers are beginning to recognize the world of dance.
"We want people out there [in Los Angeles] to be more supportive of each other. We want to come in and say it's OK to go to each other's concerts, it's OK for two people to do [different things with] a subject from the same country. It's OK to be creative."
"DANCEAFRICA AMERICA,"Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive. Dates: Saturday and Sunday, noon-8 p.m. with ticketed performances at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Prices: $14-$20. Phone: (213) 466-1767.