Akim Funk Buddha is a beautiful man. He radiates an inner joy, an infatuation with life, people, and movement. This energy is what he attempts to capture and present in his new show, Amazulu: Dance as a Weapon. Buddha, whose real name is Akim Ndlovu, was born in the U.S. but grew up in Zimbabwe. For the past 10 years he has been creating performances in New York City that combine multiculturalism, dance, storytelling, and music. Amazulu stays within this genre, celebrating the diverse histories of its cast while also investigating the indigenous roots of rhythm.
The show begins with a group chant that eventually blends with a freestyling rap session. This represents a theme that Buddha tries to maintain throughout the evening: that our modes of expression today are informed by our cultural histories. A video landscape behind the performers projects images ranging from African fabric patterns to objects in nature and modern graffiti, calling the audience's attention to the potential similarities in these variegated visual icons.
After Buddha informs the audience of his quest for expression (told through spoken-word poetry and a strange, robotic hip-hop dance), the other performers get their chance to shine. And what a bright glow it is, for Kazuma G. Motomura, taking the stage with his routine "Tea Time," is an absolute joy to watch. Gliding along the stage like an unearthly being, he mimes the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony. His hands become beings that are independent of his body, like two dancers locked in a fascinating duet.
In addition to Japan, Amazulu travels to China, via Zhisheng Zhan and his sheng (Chinese mouth organ), and to childhood, via Buddha's incarnation of a toddler. In most cases, the exploration begins as a solo, then draws in the collaborators who watch from onstage, turning the piece into a medley of rap, freestyling, beat-boxing, opera, and dance. These are the moments when the show truly takes off, and the joy the cast seems to feel when uniting in song is infectious.
Also notable in Amazulu is Buddha's throat singing, which adds an otherworldly feeling to some of the songs; Pete List's subtly supportive beat-boxing; and Erika Bank's impressive operatic tones that float above the music. Buddha's many talents also include tap dancing, gymnastic hip-hop dancing, and body balancing, and his athletic body seems more suited to all of these than to the introspective movement that makes up most of the show. The grace and subtlety required for flowing movement and spoken-word recitations are better left to the other performers, as Buddha has an immensely talented cast at his disposal and doesn't need to do it all himself.
It should be noted that the performance is a work in progress, and many elements of the evening are never satisfyingly unified. The broad narrative scope, which jumps from one part of the world to another, ultimately lacks focus and feels a little random. There are also some matters of pacing that need to be cleared up. But thankfully, Buddha lets the audience in on the show's creative process and its little mishaps, rather than attempting to cover anything up.
Amazulu: Dance as a Weapon can be seen through Feb. 20 at La MaMa E.T.C. There are also Sunday shows in the early evening (starting at 5:30) to accommodate the kids in your life. Children should be wowed by some of the physical feats, and