A Continental Feast for the Eyes and the Ears

‘Mother Africa’ Is Dance, Music and the Circus All in One

Tomas Teka Alemu, above, with Tamrat Yemane Ayalew of "Mother Africa."

Tomas Teka Alemu, above, with Tamrat Yemane Ayalew of “Mother Africa.”

Imagine attending a circus, a dance performance and a world music concert, all in one day. It would be exhausting, not to mention mind-boggling to schedule. But now this feat can be accomplished in a single location in about 100 minutes: It’s called “Mother Africa.”

This exuberant, high-energy entertainment, at the New Victory Theater, features Circus der Sinne(Circus of the Senses), based in Tanzania but with two dozen multitalented performers from various African nations. They show that an African circus both is and is not like its American counterparts. It has no clowns, though it’s frequently funny. And no animals, unless you count the symbolic wildlife onstage: cutouts (by Esiaka Shah Seif, also the production’s mask designer) and video projections.

Music punctuates most circuses, but this show’s live band plays almost continuously, offering sounds that can be sinuous and eerie or feisty and fun. Some numbers are purely music (often with vocals) and choreography, including an African stilt dance, a fully costumed Zulu dance and an intriguing combination of gumboots and tap.

Gumboots, once worn protectively in South African gold mines, were also a means of communication, the performers explain; workers forbidden to speak to one another could convey messages through stamping and slapping their footwear. At one point, several dancers furiously work their gumboots while another duo taps at astounding speed. It’s both African and American, joyful and defiant.

And, oh yes, “Mother Africa,” conceived and directed by Winston Ruddle, really is a circus. It excels in typical acts like unicycling, acrobatics, hula hoop and rolla bolla (balancing), but its unfamiliar moments are the most thrilling. Ersi Teame Gebregziabher, from Ethiopia, seems to be made of rubber; his extreme contortions look so effortless that you wouldn’t be surprised if he tied himself in a bow.

Or consider foot juggling. In an act known as Icarian games, Tamrat Yemane Ayalew and Tomas Teka Alemu, also from Ethiopia, prove that this skill can be applied to people as well as to objects. In one recent performance, in an announced attempt to break a world record for consecutive back flips, Mr. Ayalew set out to flip the ever eager 12-year-old Tomas 25 times with his feet. They quit after 31, still relaxed and smiling.

“Mother Africa” runs through Jan. 5 at the New Victory Theater, 209 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 646-223-3010, newvictory.org.

Source:Laurel Graeber|NYTimes.com

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