Dance: The beat goes on, lit by lamps and lightning

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
The Ekemeni Theatre Troupe
Royal Festival Hall, London

To find the remarkable child drummers and dancers of the Ekemeni Theatre Troupe requires a six-hour flight from London to Lagos, an internal flight for a further hour to Calabar, deep in the Niger river delta, then a tortuous two-hour journey to Uyo by road; or what's left of the road, which is little more than a deeply rutted track in some places after a heavy rainy season.

The region - known as Akwa Ibom - was declared part of Biafra in the country's disastrous civil war in the late 1960s and suffered badly.

Its natural oil reserves have speeded its recovery, but even if the land is relatively rich, the people remain poor.

As we drive into Uyo, the poverty is pitiful. The children of the Ekemeni troupe come from remote villages where life is even harsher than in the town.

As artistic director and choreographer Patrick Idiong explains, if they were not in the troupe, the children would not be going to school.

Patrick Idiong is far more than a dancemeister. He is also all-round chaperon and benefactor. The children, up to 35 of them at once, live with Mr Idiong and his wife when they are not on tour.

Mr Idiong pays for their education, medical care, food and clothing. The troupe does not receive a government grant (although the children are sometimes paid to perform at state functions) and is funded by donations and performance fees.

Rehearsals run for an average of two hours a night after school. Competition to perform is tough and keeps the standard extraordinarily high.

For their current British tour, 16 of the most talented and dedicated have been selected from the larger troupe.

We meet them at a community centre on the outskirts of town with the unlikely name of "Heroes' World".

They are wearing their green and yellow stage costumes, designed by Mr Idiong in a traditional style. The faces and bare legs of the girls are covered in markings associated with the region's Ibibio people, to whom most of the children belong.

The facilities at the centre are basic. Initially, the drums and wooden xylophones are set up on the lawn as there is no electricity in the hall and the grimy windows do not let in enough natural light.

As soon as they begin dancing and drumming, there is a torrential downpour. The instruments are hastily moved inside and eventually a generator is fetched from town. They start again, but after half an hour the generator fails. Impressively, they continue their set in the dark, without missing a beat.

A solitary hurricane lamp is found and they complete the performance to a combination of its flickering light and the flashes of lightning from outside. Despite such adversities, the performance is a sensational riot of rhythm and colour, the sophistication of which belies the performers' years.

  • The Ekemeni Theatre Troupe is appearing at the London Jazz Festival in association with Radio 3 in a free stage performance at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Radio 3 and 4 are broadcasting from the festival.
    • To read this review in full, see this week's edition of Friday magazine, free with the TES.

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