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PERFORMING ARTS : Peace, Love--and Dance : Chuck Davis believes there's hope for this world, and that the nationwide tour of DanceAfrica is part of the solution.

October 29, 1995|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

When Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of DanceAfrica America, answers his phone, it's an unexpected blast of '60s flower power. "Peace and love," the 59-year-old Davis greets his callers--and he doesn't hang up, even on a lowly voice mail system, without including "peace," "love" or both in his sign-off.

Davis--whose Los Angeles incarnation of the international dance festival, entitled DanceAfrica/LA, comes to Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex from Thursday through next Sunday--says his catch phrase does not represent an attempt to hark back to the Age of Aquarius. "I was saying that back in the 1950s ," he says earnestly in a telephone conversation from St. Petersburg, Fla., a stop on the festival's first nationwide tour, which includes Miami; Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia; Washington; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Chicago, as well as the festival's first Los Angeles visit. "That is my belief, it's what I believe . I have a strong belief that the universe, as tumultuous as it is, will be brought to discipline by dancers and musicians.

"Because, couldn't you just see it if a dancer was in charge of the war department, and somebody would say: 'Oh, can we go to war now?,' " Davis continues. "And [the dancer] would say: 'Oh, no, we have a modern class right now, so the war will have to be delayed until after class.' But after class there is a rehearsal, and after rehearsal, there is a performance. So the war gets pushed back forever and ever!"

Some of what Davis says--including his novel make-dance-not-war-theory--begs to be taken just shy of seriously. Davis, for example, attributes the curiosity that led to his lifelong interest in dance history to being born under the sign of Capricorn ("as a Cap, my role is the inquisitive side") and happily attributes this day's respite from Florida's recent raging weather as a sign that the heavens were pleased to have his African dancers drop in for a visit.

Yet there must be value in Davis' amiably flaky world view; it has led to a dance festival of extraordinary longevity (the first DanceAfrica festival was produced by Davis at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1977). In an era of shrinking arts dollars, the festival is the recipient of a $600,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as wide-ranging corporate support from AT&T, Target stores and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. And Davis' own seemingly relentless happiness and dedication to a Utopian society is something one becomes, in the course of a conversation, more likely to envy than to criticize.

Davis is also quite serious about the history of African dance. Each year, Davis--who teaches at Duke University as well as heading his own dance company, African American Dance Ensemble, in Durham, N.C.--takes groups of students to Africa to study. "They [the students] are black, white, orange and green. . . . When we go in, because we are respectful of the traditions and the heritage, the doors and barriers just fall away," Davis says. "Every morning at 7 a.m., I teach class on the beach. Then we go out into the countryside. In studying the dance of the community, you have to do more than movement. We are not in studios; we are out there with our bare feet on the ground under the big tree."

Davis insists the dancers become involved in village life, planting peanuts and potatoes, hauling in fishnets, feeding chickens. "It is that kind of energy we bring to DanceAfrica America," he says. "We are about more than dance, we are about living. We are about culture, we are about sharing and respect and learning more about our heritage."

Davis refuses to call the events at DanceAfrica America "performances." Rather, he calls the days spent in various cities a "sharing." "We are not entertainers, we are edu- tainers," he says.

"In DanceAfrica, we have a central theme, and we are all related; even though we are different companies, it is not: 'You do a routine, now I'll do a routine.' Everything we do follows a [common] story line."

In Los Angeles, the festival features three dance companies: Davis' ensemble, which will present a variety of traditional African dances; the Santa Monica-based Ballet Foclorico Do Brasil, which focuses on Afro-Brazilian dances and capoeira, a martial art created by African slaves for their self-defense, and Rennie Harris/Pure Movement, a Philadelphia street dance company that combines hip-hop with traditional African movement (the company has made concert and video appearances with pop performers Boyz II Men, Salt-N-Pepa and Chaka Khan).

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