Step Afrika! premieres ‘The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence’ inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

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Stepping off the wall

Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration paintings inspire the dancers of Step Afrika!
Written by DENEEN BROWN  for The Washington Post, published June 5, 2011


“The dancers flutter, imitating the wings of blackbirds painted by legendary artist Jacob Lawrence. A dancer pirouettes, matching the pose in Lawrence’s portrait of a woman all dressed up and waiting on a train platform.


The music fades and dancers “become” a train, making the sounds of a locomotive, moving across the stage as if they were indeed a train on which thousands of African Americans rode from the South to the North in what is now known as the Great Migration.



In a collaboration between Step Afrika! and the Phillips Collection, two art forms meld, and then painted images seem to come to life — as if the dancers themselves were emerging directly from the panels that Jacob Lawrence painted for his famed “Migration Series.”


Inspired by Lawrence’s paintings, which are part of the permanent collection at the Phillips, Step Afrika! — an internationally acclaimed dance company that incorporates both rhythmic stepping and body percussion into its work — has created a dance performance that seeks to capture the mood, history, and movement of the Great Migration. During the exodus that began in 1910, more than 7 million black people left the South to escape lives of sharecropping and poor employment, poverty, and rampant discrimination. They headed to cities in the North in search of jobs and dignity.



The collaboration between the Phillips and Step Afrika! began when the dance company’s founder, C. Brian Williams, and the Phillips Collection’s director, Dorothy Kosinski, met in August while judging a synchronized swimming contest sponsored by the Washington Projects for the Arts.


In January 2011, the pair sat down to discuss a more extensive collaboration. The Phillips would provide full access to the works of Jacob Lawrence, including digital images, as well as its archives, and Step Afrika! would translate the work into a dance performance. Soon after, Williams began extensive historical research, devouring information on the Great Migration at the Phillips and at the Schomburg in New York. He read letters from blacks who were hoping to migrate North and studied Lawrence’s paintings and the sources Lawrence may have used during his own research.


The result is “Step Afrika! Home Performance Series 2011 — The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” which opens June 15 and runs through June 26 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.



Jakari Sherman, artistic director of Step Afrika!: I want to narrate those pieces in the same way that he narrated each one of his panels… whether it be a person speaking or a recording of music [from] the time.”



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Founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Under Mr. Williams’ leadership, stepping has evolved into one of America’s cultural exports, touring more than 60 countries across the globe. To share your Step Afrika! story, visit Step Afrika!'s 30th Anniversary Timeline is made possible by the generous funding of Bloomberg Philanthropies, with additional support from the Mellon Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

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