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Luminato festival drums up the divine with KIRA | The Star

Festival presents KIRA, a celebration of humanity featuring an exultant musical ensemble and vibrant dancers

AnyYou could hardly find a more rousing way to greet this year’s Luminato festival than the sensational and sophisticated drumming of Fara Tolno.

The Guinea-raised drumming and dance virtuoso, currently based in Boulder, Colo., is the composer, choreographer and musical director of KIRA, The Path | La Voie, commissioned, produced and presented in association with Luminato by the company of Toronto dancer/choreographer Lua Shayenne.

Drumming is central to many cultures, including Canada’s First Nations, but in the case of Africa it is almost, in the perception of outsiders at least, a synonym for African music.

It’s a generalization that overlooks important regional distinctions and the close integration of drumming, dance and song in the life of many African communities. Much more than entertainment, it is a profoundly communicative art with ritual and cosmological associations.

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This important aspect, in theory at least, underlies KIRA, which is described as a celebration of humanity “as one village and its sacred bond to nature.”

The celebratory part is very evident in a 75-minute show featuring an excessively overamplified six-member musical ensemble and four dancers. The overall tone is exultant, visually reinforced by Robyn Macdonald’s vibrant costumes. The movement vocabulary through which this is expressed usually engages the whole body simultaneously, arms embracing the air in wide, uplifting and often circular gestures, and feet beating a complicated tattoo.

Sharon DiGenova’s lighting design edges KIRA closer to its spiritual associations. The initial strobe effects could be taken as a beginning-of-time metaphor. At another point a hot sun bathes the proceedings in a golden glow. One of the more arresting moments is when the music and the choreography calm down and the dancers enact what seems like ritual obeisance to Mother Earth around a pool of moonlight.

But, in the end, it’s Tolno’s hypnotic drumming that transports you to another place. His mastery of the goblet-shaped djembe must be heard to be believed.

Past Luminato festivals have brought us such high-profile, mainstream international dance companies as Netherlands Dance Theatre and New York’s Mark Morris Dance Group. This year features two troupes from abroad whose offerings represent improbable but refreshing cross-cultural encounters.

Compañía del Cuerpo de Indias, from Cartagena, Colombia, is a remarkable performing ensemble, an outgrowth of the city’s pioneering El Colegio del Cuerpo, founded in 1997 by Alvaro Restrepo and Marie France Delieuvin. Their social-justice-advocate goal was to offer an artistic outlet for underprivileged youngsters in a city rife with crime and poverty. And they continue to succeed in transforming young people’s lives.

Restrepo, born in Cartagena, studied literature and philosophy before discovering dance, and training in New York. His wide-ranging cultural interests are reflected in Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen), a 90-minute work he conceived and co-choreographed with Delieuvin and company member and school co-director Ricardo Bustamante.

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It manages simultaneously to pay tribute to a legendary figure of Japanese contemporary dance and an iconic Canadian poet/singer/songwriter. Cohen’s songs, heard in his own voice and in covers by such singers as Nina Simone, the Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, provide a mood-shifting accompaniment to choreography that references Ohno’s famous exploration of Japanese butoh dance. The two men’s shared admiration for the writing of Andalusia’s Federico Garcia Lorca provides an artistic link.

Guinea-raised drumming and dance virtuoso Fara Tolno is the composer, choreographer and musical director of KIRA, The Path | La Voie, commissioned, produced and presented in association with Luminato by the company of Toronto dancer/choreographer Lua Shayenne.Toronto dancer/choreographer Lua Shayenne’s company provides exuberant and celebratory movement to KIRA, The Path | La Voie.

Renowned as she is, Yang Liping is not the first Chinese choreographer to be drawn to the primal rhythms of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Luminato presented much-lauded choreographer Shen Wei’s interpretation in 2007. Whereas the New York-based Shen restricted himself to Stravinsky’s famous 1913 score in an abstractly geometric unravelling of its complexities, Yang builds it out with compositions inspired by traditional Tibetan music.

Instead of Stravinsky’s evocation of pagan Russia, Yang’s version, marking its North American premiere in Toronto, recasts the themes of ritual sacrifice and rebirth with symbols and ideas drawn from Chinese and Tibetan culture in a lavishly costumed 100-minute spectacle.

KIRA, The Path | La Voie is on until Sunday at Fleck Dance Theatre, 207 Queens Quay E. Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen) plays June 19 to 22 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St. E. Rite of Spring is on June 20 to 22 at the MacMillan Theatre, 80 Queens Park. See luminatofestival.com or call or 416-368-4849.

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