Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago is celebrating 40 years of African/African-American dance, music and folklore. Throughout the year, the company will be performing across the nation with spectacular performances. On August 11 Muntu will hold two shows at The Center for Performing Arts at Governors State University in University Park. Joan Gray, President of Muntu, spoke with the Defender about the evolution of Muntu and celebrating 40 years of African dance.
Chicago Defender: What is your training background as a dancer?
Joan Gray: I began taking dance classes over forty years ago, and became a member of Muntu Dance Company in 1977, and then President of the company in 1983.
CD: What was the impetus for the creation of Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago?
JG: The impetus for creating the company came in large part from a growing community of young people who were being introduced to various forms and styles of African dance and music. This was platform to express the African culture heritage of African Americans in a more deliberate and intentional way. Once we became known in the community, we were called upon to provide a cultural context for historical and community events of significance. It was acknowledgement for us that our communities were valuing a cultural representation that meant something.
CD: What were some of the more memorable cities/ countries that you and the company performed?
JG: I was say a couple of cities in England because [England] was our first international performance outside the country. Another special performance was PanaFest in Ghana because it was the first time we travelled and performed in Africa. It was really a highlight because we performed at Cape Coast Castle where so many enslaved Africans were shipped out of Africa.
CD: How did Muntu come to be invited to perform for First Lady Michelle Obama?
JG: She specifically requested us! We have had a relationship with the First Lady…. She was on our board for a brief period, and a really good dancer. She is also a big fan of dance and movement. So, when she was doing the ‘First Ladies’ event at the Comer Youth Center [in May], we were one of the groups she requested to be involved.
CD: What is special about Muntu’s 40th anniversary concert(s)?
JG: One of the things we did for this concert is look at some of the signature works in our repertoire. So audiences will see during performances celebrating our fortieth year are works that exemplify the company’s progression from traditional to more contemporary works that reflect an African frame of reference and have an African American cultural context.
CD: What do you want audiences to take away from this celebratory performance?
JG: I want their spirits to be lifted! I want everyone to have a joyous celebration with us! And I want them to learn a little bit more about their traditional culture.