Ko-Thi African Dancers Honor the Past, Prepare for the Future

By John Schneider

In 1969, just into her 20s, Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker won the opportunity to study with the National Dance Company of Ghana, West Africa. A native of Sierra Leone already living and studying modern dance in Milwaukee (“It’s a long story,” she says), she’d set her sights on dancing with the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York City. She’d even received an encouraging letter from Ailey. Then, in Ghana, she visited Elmina Castle, the most famous of the fortresses along the Ghana coast used by Americans and Europeans as holding pens for captured Africans.

“You know how things happen that are meant to happen in your life?” Caulker asks. “Standing at the Door of No Return where the slaves were made to walk at low tide onto the ships—I think that was the beginning for me. After that, I sat on the beach and looked at the water and realized I wanted to do more than just become a modern dancer.”

It wasn’t that she’d lost her love for modern dance. She understood she needed to tell a different story: the story of Africa, African Americans and the diaspora. She describes it as a revelation, a “crying spiritual unearthing that led me to redesign everything I thought I was going to do.” She returned to Milwaukee and started “this club” with a couple of dancers and drummers. They worked in church basements. Word spread. “The beauty is, from 1969 until today, the Ko-Thi Dance Company really does not market itself. We get gigs purely on the word, on the product. So, to me, looking back after 50 years, that is the testament,” says the passionate, ground-breaking artist that generations of dancers and musicians now call Mama Ferne.

Caulker is also professor emerita of the dance department at UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts. She retired in 2016 after 35 years on the faculty. The teacher within her still teaches individual classes at UWM. Ko-Thi performances are big entertainments, always teaching by demonstrating the stories and values of myriad African and diasporic cultures. Caulker remains stunned, she says, at how little people know of that history. “Our history specifically is not being taught, and that’s part of the problem America is having,” she says. “Too many people have an opinion about people who don’t look like them, purely because they’re in a dark void of nothingness in terms of information. So, all they have is their inner fear.” She points to Renaissance paintings of African businessmen and tradespeople. She details the advancements made by early African societies, such as “proper indoor bathrooms,” all demolished by barbarous Europeans. “So, somebody will say to me: I’m white, how does this relate to me? Well, it relates to you because it’s the world. Wake up.”

Ko-Thi Dance Company, the oldest African American arts organization in Wisconsin, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a concert titled JUBA-LEE. The title plays on the name of the company’s breakout work, Juba, an internationally performed, white-tuxedoed mélange of African, Caribbean and American soft shoe dance created in the 1990s by Caulker and her long-time music director Dumah Saafir. It’s a veritable history of African dance and music as it developed across time and geography. It’s a challenging work that demands expertise in all the dance styles it incorporates. The company is recreating the original show for performance in 2020. JUBA-LEE tells the story of the learning process.

The concert is entirely the creation of Ko-Thi’s current leadership: the dancer-choreographers DeMar Walker, Sonya Thompson, Tisiphani Mayfield and LePierce Eubanks; the musicians Kumasi Allen, Keon Sykes and Victor Campbell; and the designer and production manager Sarah Hamilton. It will feature adult and children’s ensembles performing side by side.

“You’ll see a great mix of dances from within the diaspora,” Walker says, “from tap, jazz, traditional work from the continent. It spans six countries—Haiti, the U.S., Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. What I recognized when we started thinking of doing this was just that commonality of people within a diaspora celebrating and affirming themselves through music and dance, and just how much that spirit has transcended time. If there’s anything I want people to get from this production, it’s how much that is a part of us.”

“I think one cool thing about how we’ve done it,” he continues, “is that we’re starting close to the present, maybe around the 1930s, and going back in time until it ends in Africa. This production is really about sankofa, an African principle meaning to honor the past in order to be present and preparing for the future. It’s about who we are and who we can be.”

JUBA-LEE performances are Aug. 2-4 and Aug. 9 at the UWM Mainstage Theatre. The Ton Ko-Thi Children’s Performing Ensemble will appear with other Milwaukee groups at the Alvin Ailey Company’s pre-professional Ailey II in Nō Studios’ Dance Fest at the Sherman Phoenix building on Saturday, July 20.

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