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Dance Review: Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater’s ‘Rites of Passage’ 

Exploring life’s transitions and one’s quest for self-actualization through an Afrocentric lens, new and re-staged works by Oluyinka Akinjiola, Derrel Sekou Walker and others find fellowship along the way.

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Excerpts from "The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement" which was originally created for a five-day premiere at Portland Playhouse in 2023, offered a more comprehensive look at the Black experience. Photo: Cameron Ousley.
“Rites of Passage” reprised excerpts from 2023’s “The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement,” which offered a more comprehensive look at the Black experience. Photo: Cameron Ousley.

It’s Black History Month and here in Portland there’s no shortage of cultural events to celebrate. In the dance realm, local staple Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater takes to the stage with Rites of Passage, running for two weeks at Reed College’s Greenwood Theatre. Featuring six premieres, including work by Rejoice! dancers as well as two guest choreographers, Rites of Passage (RITES) is a jam-packed two-hour program. As director and dancer Oluyinka Akinjiola introduced the evening, she hinted at what was to come: a reflection on times of transition, both in community and in private. The show would be “unapologetically Black,” she shared, adding that “it’s Black History Month after all!” Moving into its tenth year as a company, Rejoice! is a contemporary dance ensemble led by the vision of Akinjiola. If you’ve been to a Rejoice! show, you know that the community is rich and well nurtured. It’s in the energy of the room when you enter the space and it’s on display through the cheers from the crowd as they clap and holler along during the performance. Over the years, Rejoice! has produced a multitude of works, all drawing inspiration from the folklore of the great African diaspora. In the garden of Rejoice! repertoire, RITES is in bloom, sprouting up from fertile ground the group has tended to for the past decade.

Decimus Yarbrough (front) and the Rejoice! dancers in "Next Up," an exuberant piece in which dance and music spoke to the joy to be found in community. Photo: Cameron Ousley
Decimus Yarbrough (front) and the Rejoice! dancers in “Next Up,” an exuberant piece in which dance and music spoke to the joy to be found in community. Photo: Cameron Ousley

In Greenwood Theatre, an altar was set up to the right of the stage, and audience members were encouraged to jot down their own “rites of passage” as an offering. It’s this type of openness and conversation that began the initial process of creation for RITES, Akinjiola told me over a phone call last week. The company first spent time researching and discussing the particulars of what a rite of passage is, and how those moments of transition are and aren’t celebrated in our culture today. 

“A rite of passage is marked by a period of separation, then an initiation or transformation, and finally, a return,” Akinjiola explained. The creation of RITES “allowed me to witness, celebrate, and understand the company members, because everyone was able to create a solo based on their experience with a rite of passage in life,” she added. It’s the moments of transition that aren’t celebrated or spoken about that Akinjiola seemed particularly interested in. In RITES, her solo addresses the postpartum period after her son’s birth, a time during which she faced depression and isolation. For Akinjiola, the timing of this performance offered her an opportunity to complete the rite of passage, or return, so to speak. “I’ve processed the experience of giving birth to my son and postpartum. I just haven’t spoken up about it,” she told me. “Now that I’m not in it so deeply, I feel the ability to do so. In our culture, we are in a place where we need to acknowledge and address it. The birthing and postpartum healthcare needs to improve.” 

Michael Galen and Oluyinka Akinjiola in "Welcome to Your 30s," which combined both of their recent rites of passage and explored how their friendship provided through those times. Photo: Cameron Ousley
Michael Galen and Oluyinka Akinjiola in “Welcome to Your 30s,” which combined both of their recent rites of passage and explored how their friendship provided through those times. Photo: Cameron Ousley

Akinjiola is referring to the staggering fact that Black women experience postpartum depression twice as much as white women, yet Black women are half as likely to seek mental health treatment through their depression (Fightress Aaron, Waldon University, 2021). Additionally, studies show that Black women often navigate their symptoms without treatment due to stereotypes surrounding Black women needing to be strong all of the time.  

In a powerful moment during her solo, Akinjiola moves across the space as fully stuffed tote bags are thrown from off stage. Some collide with her while she scrambles to pick them up and make space on her arms to carry them all. The soundscore features a TEDx talk by British social entrepreneur Sandra Igwe LLB MBA, and reiterates this idea of the strong Black woman. Simultaneously, Akinjiola performs the choreography as though she isn’t weighed down by the numerous bags hanging from her arms like a cape. It’s a harrowing visual representation of the months in postpartum. While you’re pregnant, “you get so much care, but that all drops away after you give birth and the focus becomes on the baby,” she reflected over the phone. “For me, care looks like checking in with the friend who just gave birth, and asking ‘do you have what you need?’ Sometimes moms have to pull in and away from their communities to get through the postpartum months. That’s when you need to reach out.” 

Dancer Mariana Rose Thorn’s solo, titled 'Bonded,' explored the transition that comes for both mother and child when a baby becomes a child. Photo: Cameron Ousley
Dancer Mariana Rose Thorn’s solo, titled ‘Bonded,’ explored the transition that comes for both mother and child when a baby becomes a child. Photo: Cameron Ousley

In a similar vein, company dancer Mariana Rose Thorn’s solo, titled Bonded, looked at the transition that comes for both mother and child when a baby becomes a child. A highlight of the solo was the successful collaboration in choreography by Thorn and stunning costume design by Wanda Waldon. A white fabric was utilized, with one end pulling from backstage, and the other end wrapped around Thorn’s torso. Her initial movements cradled and rocked the fabric in her arms, and it became immediately apparent that the fabric represented her baby, the umbilical cord, and subsequently after birth; the unseen thread that tethers us to our mothers, and them to us. Bonded’s soundscore features recordings of conversations between Thorn and her now toddler. The journey of the piece was emotional, freeing, and ultimately instinctual. Just as we watched her transition into finding her individuality once the white fabric was released from her torso, we also witnessed the disillusionment of what it means to be a mother: a being that is simultaneously its own entity and vessel for its kin. 

In her solo "Somatic Memory," dancer Bethany Harvey simultaneously danced and tendid to a potted plant she carried with her. Photo: Cameron Ousley
In her solo “Somatic Memory,” dancer Bethany Harvey simultaneously danced and tendid to a potted plant she carried with her. Photo: Cameron Ousley

The program for RITES was varied, but I found myself drawing through lines where I could – perhaps in attempts to find the universality of these transitional periods. At the end of the day, we are all seeking to be cared for, understood, and celebrated. Dancer Bethany Harvey’s solo Somatic Memory provided a brief and abstracted study on secure attachment via autonomic nervous system regulation. While the piece was quite simple, with Harvey simultaneously dancing and tending to a potted plant she carried with her, I found myself wondering if it was meant to be a gentle nod to the tending one must do to their own well being. Was the plant meant to symbolize Harvey’s own innerworkings? As the piece ended, I found myself surprised that it had come to a conclusion so quickly. Or perhaps, Somatic Memory was just a succinct look into one facet of finding safe connection in relationship to others, as Harvey mentioned in the program notes. 

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Rikkia Pereira, the newest Rejoice! dancer, was a powerful presence on stage as she performed her solo work, titled "unveiling." Photo: Cameron Ousley
Rikkia Pereira, the newest Rejoice! dancer, was a powerful presence on stage as she performed her solo work, titled “unveiling.” Photo: Cameron Ousley

While some solos on the program focused on rites of passage that occur in partnership, others focused on personal journeys. Newest Rejoice! dancer Rikkia Pereira presented her solo, titled unveiling. In the opening ceremonial and solitary procession across the space, Pereira carried a candle as she strode into the wake of what would be a reflection upon her path in becoming the woman she is today. In her self-composed soundscore, she introduced herself repetitively, sounding out R-I-K-K-I-A over and over. The slowed-down reverb of her voice provided an auditory bath for her movements to swirl around in. While the first half of her piece was almost troubled, we watched as she moved through a transitional period and eventually found a confident stride. The most memorable part of Pereira’s work was her stage presence. Enveloping and contagious, her attention to the nuance of her movements combined with her awareness in performance set her apart and continued to draw my eye as the evening progressed. 

Oluyinka Akinjiola and Michael Galen in their duet "Welcome to Your 30s," which explored how, through their real-life friendship, they came to support one another through significant life transitions. Photo: Cameron Ousley
Oluyinka Akinjiola and Michael Galen in their duet “Welcome to Your 30s,” which explored how, through their real-life friendship, they came to support one another through significant life transitions. Photo: Cameron Ousley

Dancer Michael Galen’s solo, which was performed within his duet with Akinjiola, titled Welcome to your 30s, looked at his experience moving through personal injury, and how his body has changed with age. The pair are not only longtime artistic collaborators, but friends, Akinjiola told me during our phone call. Welcome to your 30s combined both of their recent rites of passage, and how their real-life friendship served as a means to support one another through those times. While the piece was marked by isolation, as mentioned earlier with Akinjiola’s solo that reflected on her postpartum journey and now Galen’s months of injury and recovery, the backbone of Welcome to your 30s was the constant presence of the other person: the friend. Even while the fraught solos occurred, the “other” spent time sitting downstage, setting up an altar with candles, photographs, and other various items. They eventually came to join in the solitary dance, offering support. When Galen moved towards Akinjiola at the end of his solo, clearly motioning to his pained knee, she responded by moving a cloth atop his injury, as if to say “it’s okay to rest.” 

Ola Onipede in his solo, which employs an Ashanti proverb as its title: Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease, meaning “no one knows the beginning of a great person.” Photo: Cameron Ousley
Ola Onipede in his solo, which employs an Ashanti proverb as its title: “Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease,” meaning “no one knows the beginning of a great person.” Photo: Cameron Ousley

The final solo of the evening belonged to Ola Onipede. The piece employs an Ashanti proverb as its title: Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease, meaning “no one knows the beginning of a great person.” The work occupied two poles: on one side was the distressed environment of the corporate rat race, and on the other was the bliss of artistic flow. Following suit with the rest of the program, Onipede’s solo used a series of props and projections on the set to help tell his story of self-realization. With footage of crowded zoom meetings rolling behind Onipede, the piece opened on a frantic scene where we watched him tirelessly pound away at a laptop placed on stage. As he moved further into his stress-induced frenzy, the response to this workload drew Onipede into heightened hysteria. The antidote to this madness came in the form of afrobeat. Tracks by Nigerian artists Obongjayar and Baby de Scarface reverberated through the space and offered Onipede a new path or, perhaps, better phrased as a path of return. Born in Nigeria and raised between there and Ghana, Onipede’s upbringing influenced his gravitation towards dance styles like Afrobeat and Bata (a traditional Yoruba dance form). 

In the second half of "Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease," Ola Onipede expressed his artistic bliss, pausing between dance steps to work on a painting in progress. Photo: Cameron Ousley
In the second half of “Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease,” Ola Onipede expressed his artistic bliss, pausing between dance steps to work on a painting in progress. Photo: Cameron Ousley

As the second half of Obi Nnim Obrempon Ahyease progressed, we watched Onipede’s spirit awaken. What was previously a dark night was now the sun on the horizon. Expression seemed to flow out of Onipede, and not just in the form of dance. Between steps, we watched him work on a painting that was placed downstage. When I chatted with Onipede over a phone call, he explained that his painting was a work-in-progress. After each performance, he’s been adding finishing touches – reinforcing the living nature of his solo, and that, as the title of his work suggests, the story is not complete. In the painting, you see Onipede jumping through a gye nyame, a Ghanian symbol representative of the expression “except God.” Oniepede explained its meaning, that “you shouldn’t fear anything except for God or the higher power. Me jumping through that symbol in my art is a push from the higher power – it’s a blessing to pursue this lifestyle as an artist.” 

"Churched," by guest choreographer Antonio Brown, rejoiced in the spirit of what church means within a Black community. Photo Cameron Ousley
“Churched,” by guest choreographer Antonio Brown, rejoiced in the spirit of what church means within a Black community. Photo: Cameron Ousley

Remember earlier when I said that the program of RITES was jam-packed? Well it’s not over yet! The last three pieces on the program harnessed the full energy of Rejoice and more. First, the company took to the stage with excerpts from the 2023 premiere The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement, choreographed by Akinjiola. The two remaining pieces brought on guest choreographers: Churched by NYC-based choreographer Antonio Brown and Portland’s own Derrel Sekou Walker with Next Up.  All three pieces were just as Akinjiola had promised: unapologetically Black. From musings on the ceremony and journey of growing up in church, Brown’s work was at times comedic, but didn’t shy away from direct commentary on the abstraction of God in today’s modern culture. “Why worship the universe when you can worship the creator of the universe itself?” the piece asked. The choreography stepped up to the challenge, offering processional and celebratory motions to honor and rejoice in the spirit of what church means within a Black community. 

"Rites of Passage" included a piece from 2023's "The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement," featuring the Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater company. Photo: Cameron Ousley.
“Rites of Passage” included a re-worked excerpt from 2023’s “The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement,” featuring the Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater company. Photo: Cameron Ousley.

An excerpt of The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement, which was originally created for a five day premiere at Portland Playhouse last year, offered a more comprehensive look at the Black experience. While I’ll let ArtsWatch writer Hannah Krafcik’s review of the original premiere do most of the reflecting, the conclusion is that the work “called upon ancestors, deities, ensemble members, and audiences to create a tapestry of resistance to violence and apathy. Through music, movement, and history, The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement affirmed that each person has essential power to levy in the collective quest for racial justice. Our protest is our choice.”

Powerful performances from "The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement" call upon "ancestors, deities, ensemble members, and audiences to create a tapestry of resistance to violence and apathy." Photo: Cameron Ousley.
Powerful performances from “The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement” call upon “ancestors, deities, ensemble members, and audiences to create a tapestry of resistance to violence and apathy.” Photo: Cameron Ousley.

They say save the best for last, and that’s what RITES did. In the finalé piece Next Up, Rejoice! dancers joined with the Sebé Kan West African Drum and Dance Ensemble for the ultimate celebration. Using the Sorsonet rhythm, which has roots in the Baga tribes of West Guinea, the dance is meant to honor the Sorsonet Mask. Traditionally paraded through the village during the dance, the mask was meant to offer protection for the entire tribe. In Next Up, we watch a rite of passage for four girls occurring during this celebration. The young dancers of Sebé Kan are joined by the cast of Rejoice! and ushered into their future with a dance. Sekou Walker’s choreography paired with live drumming and vibrant costuming by Earlene Munerlin amounted to a euphoric outburst of expression. 

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In Derrel Sekou Walker's "Next Up," the young dancers of Sebé Kan West African Drum and Dance Ensemble were joined by members of the Rejoice! company and ushered into their future with a dance. Photo: Cameron Ousley
In Derrel Sekou Walker’s “Next Up,” the young dancers of Sebé Kan West African Drum and Dance Ensemble were joined by members of the Rejoice! company and ushered into their future with a dance. Photo: Cameron Ousley

What struck me in Next Up was the abundance of joy when in community. The dancers and musicians fed off one another’s energy, and it was hard to miss the sense of union both onstage and with the audience gathered to witness and participate in this celebration. As the dancers paired off into duets, stomping their feet tirelessly and drawing from what seemed to be a spiritual place to go deeper into the rhythms the drummers pounded out, Oluyinka’s interest in the rites of passage we don’t celebrate or speak of floated to mind. If Next Up was a celebration of community, it was also a reminder: in community there is joy, unwavering support, and the opportunity to move through life with and for one another. In Onipede’s words, “there’s not any one particular ritual that one goes through for these moments of self-realization, but there should be. It’s defining the source of who we want to be. That ritual is saying this is who I am as a character, that these are my foundational beliefs, and these are the communities I want to invest in. This is what will propel me into the future.” RITES set out on a journey to bring light to our internal rights of passage – our moments of self-actualization – and it found togetherness along the way. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon ArtsWatch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature on her bike, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. See her work at beth-whelan.com 

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