The set for “The City of Others” looks innocuous enough: 11 identical gray chairs. It’s only when 12 performers take the stage that you realize this work — which Colombian company Sankofa Danzafro presented in a Celebrity Series engagement at New England Conservatory’s new Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre over the weekend — is going to burst at the seams. Even at just 50 minutes, “The City of Others” has enough kinetic energy to light up all of Boston. It’s nonstop action — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave room for thought.
Artistic director Rafael Palacios founded Sankofa Danzafro in Medellín in 1997. Sankofa is a word from the Akan people of Ghana; its three syllables mean “return,” “go,” and “look, seek, and take.” The company translates this into Spanish as “volver a la raíz,” or “return to the root.” Colombia, it turns out, has the second-largest population of African descent in Latin America, so for Palacios and his dancers, the goal is to retrieve and hold onto their African heritage while still being Colombian. That dualism is also implicit in the title “The City of Others” (original Spanish: “La ciudad de los otros”). You’re always an individual in a city of others, but here you can feel like an African in a city of Hispanics. How do you turn “the city of others” into “the city of us”?
The dancers — seven men, five women — come on in dress shirts and ties, dark trousers, and bare feet, as if they were office workers with a dress code they were violating by the omission of shoes. Eleven of them sit in the chairs, which are initially arranged to suggest office cubicles. One lady starts to sashay about, and work, or whatever it is, gives way to dancing.
The second tableau finds everybody standing with fists raised, hanging onto the straps of a subway train. One by one they find seats, and to singing and the pounding of an onstage hand drum, William Camilo Perlaza Micolta begins a solo that’s so explosive, so ecstatic, he looks ready to shed his skin. To the rhythm of a second drum, a series of courtship duets start up, with the ladies swiveling and the men strutting. Shirts may come untucked, but the footwork stays right with the beat. Yndira Perea Cuesta, her dreadlocks flying, bookends the section with a solo that’s the equal of Perlaza Micolta’s.
In his program note, Palacios states that “The City of Others” was commissioned in 2010 and “created from our personal experiences of racism and oppression in our daily lives in Medellín.” The chairs conjure a waiting room at one point and perhaps a prison at another. Racism is represented by aggressive dancers who knock one another down with their shoulders. Toward the end, three large plywood panels are brought out; lit to look like coffins, they form barriers, enclosures. Tilted at a 45-degree angle, they’re an obstacle for the dancers to climb and surmount.
But with its limited narrative, “The City of Others” can’t fully explore the kind of experiences Palacios is talking about. What the piece offers instead is the exuberance — and sometimes the anger — of an inclusive dance style that, fusing Latin and African and hip-hop, tells its own story. And creates its own community: No matter how disparate or individual their choreography, the dozen performers manage to express their unity. By the end, when they lift Perlaza Micolta and María Elena Murillo Palacios aloft, they’ve created a city of dance.
“The City of Others”
Performance piece choreographed and directed by Rafael Palacios. Performed by Sankofa Danzafro. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At: New England Conservatory Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, Saturday Nov. 3. Remaining performance: Nov. 4. Tickets $50. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.