Dance phenomenon finally arrives in America

20080229_inq_foot29-a
"Footprint," with a cast of 26 South Africans, has traveled through Europe, Australia, China, India and Israel.

People call it "the Riverdance of South Africa," and with good reason. Like that ubiquitous Celtic powerhouse, Richard Loring's African Footprint features a large cast of hyper-energetic, attractive, impressively trained young dancers, singers and instrumentalists whose musical revue reportedly has been seen by more than 250 million people since it launched eight years ago.

Footprint has become South Africa's longest-running show and has traveled across Europe and in Australia, China, India and Israel. This weekend its first North American tour comes to Philadelphia's Academy of Music.

Footprint is the brainchild of Richard Loring, a white London-born actor who went to South Africa in the 1970s to star in a musical and never left. Instead, he became a theatrical producer and, in 1998, decided to pay homage to his adopted country by creating a celebration of the rich history of its music and dance.

Loring gathered a group of talented but untrained young people from poor neighborhoods and painstakingly taught them the skills that would enable them to appear in what became African Footprint.

A year after the project began, Footprint was invited to participate in South Africa's televised Millennium Night festivities, on New Year's Eve 1999, which led to an invitation to travel to England for a performance before members of Britain's royal family. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 90 minutes, African Footprint showcases everything from traditional "tribal" dancing (more Lion King than National Geographic in style) to a gumboot number (done in tall rubber boots). It includes some impressive tap dancing, and a local form of hip-hop called pantsula. There is a group number involving soccer balls (inspired by Stomp), some seductive jazz-inflected modern dance, and a slow-motion duet for two male dancers (one black, one white) inside a stylized jail.

Instruments include drums, flutes and sax, and the lyrics to the mostly upbeat pop songs (composed, like all Footprint music, by Dave Pollecutt) are mainly in English with a smattering of Zulu. The costumes are colorful, the lighting dramatic, and the dancers can clearly handle everything co-choreographers Debbie Rakusin and David Matamela throw at them.

All 26 cast members are native South Africans but hail from different regions, and the country's 11 official languages could have presented rehearsal difficulties. But dance captain Zakhele Tham'sanqa Nkosi ("Zakes" for short) said there is no problem: "We talk with each other in English," he said via telephone from Buffalo, N.Y., where the troupe appeared Tuesday.

Zakes is a self-taught dancer whose early gigs were on Soweto street corners and at family birthday parties. The first time he saw professional black dancers, at 23, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. As a black man raised by his grandfather under apartheid, in a culture where dancing was considered inappropriate for males, this was a difficult decision. But today he is an award-winning performer and a sought-after choreographer.

Loring has said he always hoped Footprint performers would become just this sort of role models in their hometowns. And if the show's inspirational message - of hope in tough times, and strength through diversity - sometimes comes on a bit strong, it sets out a laudable goal.


Richard Loring's African Footprint

The Philadelphia premiere of Richard Loring's African Footprint, currently on its first tour of North America, will be presented this weekend at the Academy of Music. Richard Loring conceived, directed, and produced the show; choreography is by Debbie Rakusin and David Matamela; music and lyrics, by Dave Pollecutt; poetry, by Don Mattera.

Performances are at 8 tonight and tomorrow night, 2 p.m. tomorrow, and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Academy, Broad & Locust Streets. Tickets: $20-$67.50. Information: 215-790-5800 or www.kimmelcenter.org. Tickets may be purchased by calling 215-893-1999.