CHICAGO — IN Bantu, the word muntu means ``essence of humanity.'' But through explosive drums, raging dance, and a riot of colorful costumes, the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago lavishes its audience with a more direct and vital meaning: joy.
Such is the leading lesson from a troupe that since its inception in 1972 has channeled its passion for performing as much toward education as entertainment.
Behind Muntu's ecstatic fury of dance and song is a meticulous attention to tradition. The troupe researches the history of the art forms and the societies that created them. After learning, the group begins educating by putting these forms onstage.
By making audience members participate in its celebration of African and African-American traditions, Muntu reveals the complexity behind the blurring drumbeats and wild turns. Its repertoire is an eclectic mix including African hand drums, hambone rhythms, ragtime, and West Indian Dance.
In the current series, the dancers of Muntu especially celebrate the tenacity of African and African-American performing traditions. Through a brash, broadly historiographical program, they recall how the inheritors of these customs sustained and nourished the art forms even as they were torn from their homeland, bound into slavery, and encumbered by racism.
It is difficult to imagine more enthusiastic, colorful, and enthralling instructors in such traditions.
Five drummers begin the performance with ``Drum Talk,'' dressed in tasseled and frilled vests, pants, and headresses sewn in black and red cloth trimmed with white fur. They start with simple rhythms at a serene volume but build a dialogue in drums that roars at the end in frenzied, exuberant complexity.
In ``We Became the Drum,'' 11 performers accompanied softly by bells and drums, recount how slaves in the American South responded when their owners barred drums from plantations for fear that their slaves would establish lines of communication in the area.
``They denied us the drum,'' a performer says.
``So we became the drum!'' the other performers reply in unison. They repeat the cry and defiant response until their words make a percussive sycopation.
Referring to the activism of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and other black leaders, Muntu recalls how Africans and African-Americans, when denied the tools of free expression, have created their own rich, lasting, cultural vocabulary in movement.
While trying to overturn repression, they have created new modes of expression.
``Juba Jig'' illustrates how slaves defied the ban on their culture and, by doing so, popularized a new form of percussion.
A lone dancer, dressed in ragged clothes, skitters across a darkened stage in front of a screen painted with trees. Eyes wide and mouth agape, he urgently beats the hambone, slapping out a rapid call on his thigh. Other slaves appear also in search of comrades, drumming out an urgent plea for fellowship.
As the men and women fall into a whirling circle, the cacophony of beating and jumble of random movements suddenly comes together in glorious cohesion. Together, as they dance their secret circle, their brows lift. They beam broad smiles while beating out a joyous, orchestrated rhythm on their thighs, chests, calves, feet, and hands.
The circle explodes into the wildly exuberant and springy juba jig. The dancers move their legs in a triple-time broad step, arms flailing in a smooth rhythm, all the while keeping their heads comparatively still with the relaxed, beatific smile that seems to be the Muntu signature.
Then the dancers break again and dance the cakewalk accompanied by washboard, cow bell, and spoons. Arm-in-arm, couples prance, strut, and kick as if trying to lift themselves higher.
Suddenly, their joyful fellowship is broken by the enraged, unintelligible voice of the slave master ordering them out of the forest and back to their plantation dwellings. They flee.
While Muntu has an ample share of tall, svelte dancers, comparatively short and rotund performers fill it out.
The stout dancers make Muntu more accessible, human, and common. In its mission to educate, the troupe apparently puts intimate sharing before grand, artistic transcendence.
The dancers misstepped a few times on the opening night of the concert series. Some of the singing was rough around the edges.
Also, the program leaned too much toward the brassy and obtrusive. The troupe would have offered a richer, more self-assured performance had the loud, showy acts been set off by milder and more subtle pieces.
Babu Atiba, assistant artistic director, illustrated the value of balance in a soothing one-man act entitled merely ``Audience Participation.''
Atiba strolled onto the stage dressed in a blazing white tunic and pants. He sang while slapping the base of a large calabash strung with beads. After leading the audience in song he offered a brief homily describing the dancers' philosophy.
``We know there is merit in all cultures; by appreciating the differences we can better realize the similarities,'' he said.
* Muntu's tour continues with the following performances: Feb. 8, Ithaca, N.Y.; Feb. 9, Canton, N.Y.; Feb. 17, Chicago, Ill.; Feb. 18, Calumet City, Ill.; Feb. 25, DeKalb, Ill.; March 3, Palos Hills, Ill.