Tear down this fourth wall

NAfro Dance Productions encourages audience participation at its shows

Cassimiro Nhussi, artistic director and founder of NAfro.

Leif Norman

NAfro Dance Productions – an African contemporary dance company – presents Sauti: Things We Are Carrying

Running from Nov. 1-3 at the Gas Station Arts Centre, the show features two original works choreographed by Bakari Lindsay, co-founder of the Toronto-based Collective of Black Artists, and Zab Maboungou, founder of Montreal’s Nyata Nyata Dance Company.

In addition to dance, Sauti – which is Swahili for “voice” – features live African drums, guitars, horns and more.

Cassimiro Nhussi, artistic director and founder of NAfro, is passionate about creating a show that inspires a feeling of community. 

“Dance comes from people telling stories around the fire. It wasn’t about ‘Ok, you dance and I’ll watch it.’ People have become very separate,” Nhussi says.

Nhussi playfully drops his voice to a whisper, impersonating modern theatre audiences.

“The show is happening now, so we have to be very quiet. At our shows, no one is going to tell you to be quiet. We get everyone chanting, grooving, screaming.”

With its unique approach and the fact that it’s the only African dance company in Western Canada, NAfro has continued to grow in popularity since starting in 2002. 

“The audiences started small, but then people started inviting friends to go again because they had so much fun. We had to move from the Rachel Browne Theatre to the Gas Station, and now we sell out there.” 

NAfro Dance Productions celebrated its 10 year anniversary last November with a celebratory three-day dance festival that included classes, discussions and performances choreographed by professionals from across Canada and the U.S.

NAfro also has a dance studio which teaches a variety of classes to all ages and levels and is located across the street from Gas Station in the Augustine United Church. Nhussi finds that the Osborne Village location works well with his enthusiasm for community. 

“I love it! Our location is in the best part of town. There’s a vibe,” he says. “With the restaurants and everything, you won’t live here five weeks without having to pass through the village. We can present our works in other locations, but this is our home.”

The neighbourhood has also found its way into previous NAfro shows. The company’s 2010 production, Return of the Dead featured some people who had never danced before and worked for weeks to learn the choreography.

“We got everyone all done up in masks and paint, it was so spooky,” Nhussi says with a big smile. “I went into the Second Cup around the corner and saw this man with a tubby belly in a muscle shirt. I could just tell he had this attitude like ‘I don’t care.’ I needed to put him in my show.”

Still, Nhussi knows that his shows aren’t for everyone, but if someone doesn’t understand the piece it won’t bother him.

“We don’t always have to agree, but to at least be part of that process and that moment… let’s just have a good time.”

Published in Volume 68, Number 9 of The Uniter (October 30, 2013)

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