Jeffrey Page premieres new work for Muntu Dance Theatre

The Emmy-nominated choreographer takes African dance to a new level.

Photograph: Djeneba Aduayom

Jovial choreographer Jeffrey Page ushers me to a corner table at Garifuna Flava on 63rd Street and Campbell Avenue. The Caribbean restaurant in Chicago Lawn has been acting as rehearsal space for Muntu Dance Theatre. A wall separates the dining room and kitchen from the wood-floor banquet hall, where the 32-year-old guest artist has been working with dancers on a new work for the company’s 40th anniversary show Saturday 21 at the Harris Theater. Page says the rehearsal space has no special significance; it was the only one available to the company.

“It’s been a great experience, but it’s [also] been a very unique experience,” he says. “I’ve been begging them to get me into a studio. I need mirrors, I need sounds booming from the rafters.”

The space speaks to difficult truths. Muntu’s African folk style lacks the mainstream popularity that affords places like Hubbard Street and Joffrey permanent homes.

“When you talk about African dance, you’re not talking about a stage, you’re talking about a village,” says Muntu artistic director Amaniyea Payne. “You talk about taking something from a traditional and cultural format and putting it on a Western stage. How do you do that and still give it the integrity it still has?” But Page, the Emmy-nominated dance maker, who studied and idolized Muntu growing up, brings a bit of pop flair to a scene that could benefit from contemporary influence.

“People see [African] as a novelty form,” he says. A server hands him a menu, but it doesn’t distract his train of thought. “People see it as a juggler who spits fire. You can’t turn that into a language. You can’t speak that.”

Having choreographed for superstars like Beyoncé and appeared on Broadway, the Indianapolis native intends to find a balance between commercial and concert art. He made a splash as resident choreographer on the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance with a rousing routine for a group of male dancers—a powerful blend of African folk, hip-hop and contemporary movement. It was a taste of what the New York resident brings to age-old practices.

I mention a recent Muntu performance, during which a critic observed audience members leaving before the 150-minute show’s end—which the critic called “a shame.” Page doesn’t disagree, but observes, “You cannot watch spitting fire and juggling for 150 minutes. But what if you spit fire and something catches on fire, and then this happens and that happens? It turns into a story. It turns into something that grows and grows and grows.”

Page references the colors red and blue: The culture of ’60s African dance in America, he says, captivated audiences with those “colors” of rich, ethnic techniques rooted in tribal rituals and rites of passage, but it has since grown stagnant. Page wants to blend the two together, to form a beautiful purple, as he describes it.

“We have not moved forward. I’ll go on record with saying that. We have to understand what our purple is. And our purple is jazz, our purple is blues, our purple is hip-hop, it’s bop, it’s two-stepping and it’s hand dancing, it’s fried chicken, it’s grits, it’s corn bread, it’s all this shit that we’re scared to say sometimes. But that’s our purple. And we have to live in it. If we don’t live in it, we spend a lifetime reaching for blue and red.”

Muntu Dance Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary with “New Voices/New Vistas” at the Harris Theater Saturday 21 at 7pm. 

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