“The style of dance that we do is NAfro.”

Return of the Dead shows off unique take on African contemporary dance

When NAfro Dance Productions founder and artistic director Casimiro Nhussi first came to Winnipeg, he couldn’t find anyone producing the sort of work he wanted to make. So he started making it himself.

“I’m originally from Mozambique. Before coming here, I used to be the director of (the) Mozambique national dance company (which is) kind of the equivalent to the National Ballet. It’s a government-run company,” Nhussi says.

“I looked around, and I didn’t find a professional dance company of my style of dancing. So I ... put on a show as an independent choreographer, and it was quite successful. The audience kept asking for more, and we built from there.”

Over the last 15 years NAfro has toured across Canada, in Africa, worked with choreographers from around the world, and produced its own Moving Inspirations Dance Festival. The group now creates and presents two new shows a year.

Faye Thomson, co-director of the professional program at Winnipeg’s School of Contemporary Dance, says Nhussi’s work blends African traditions with the technical rigour of contemporary dance.

“He’s steeped in the African traditions ... and that is certainly a rich part of the tapestry of NAfro, but it’s also very focused on contemporary dance,” she says.

“The dancers ... are highly trained as professional contemporary dancers and also (in) the melding of the two, of contemporary dance and African. The company is very technical and very strong and very physical and vibrant.”

Nhussi says the work produced by NAfro ultimately defies categorization.

“It’s African contemporary, kind of dance style. But you won’t find it anywhere but in Winnipeg,” he says.

“The style of dance that we have is NAfro ... It’s unique. It has its own vocabulary, has its own persona.”

Key to his choreography are the elements of risk and using dance to explore social and cultural issues.

“It’s a style of dancing that would take chances when we do choreography,” Nhussi says.

“We’re not just limited by a vocabulary that we’re doing every day. Every time we come up with a different choreographic style ... Within that choreographic style we raise social issues ... we are a catalyst for social change.”

NAfro’s current production, Return of the Dead, investigates the afterlife.

“In so many cultures, we believe that the spirits of our ancestors come and live with us,” Nhussi says.

“In so many cultures around the world, we have those concept(s) of the dead people coming to life. Is that true? We’re questioning that ... If they come to talk to us, what exactly have they come to do? ... They come and want to fix ... the damage that we did? ... Or they want to, as we say, want to dance one more time?”

Whatever their source materials, Nhussi says that NAfro productions are known for their unpredictability and excitement.

“When you come to see our shows, you’ve got to be ready, because we’ll bring the audience on stage for curtain calls, for big-time party,” he says.

“You cannot predict what we are going to be doing next.”

NAfro’s Dance Production’s Return of the Dead runs from Nov. 2 to 4 at the Gas Station Art Centre. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for students and seniors and are available through the NAfro website.

Published in Volume 73, Number 8 of The Uniter (November 1, 2018)

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