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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reflecting on the Past

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Ferne Caulker, founder and artistic/executive director of Ko-Thi Dance Company, pauses before responding to the question of how she generated the idea to celebrate 40 years of history for her dance company. Then her candor steps right up.

"We had no money," she says jokingly, but with a serious undertone. "And then I said, 'How can we celebrate our 40th year without any real funding?'"

It turns out the answer was in Ko-Thi's own back yard-or rather, back stage. "We've got 40 years of costumes," she adds.

These costumes represent the cultures Ko-Thi has celebrated in song and dance using traditional instruments and drumming: Africa and the Diaspora, the Caribbean, Haiti and Puerto Rico. The influences are as striking as the traditional patterns that unfurl as the dancers move. And starting with that multicolored spectrum, Caulker and company devised Reflections, a historic overview of the company's highlights from the past 40 years condensed into a 90-minute program.

The celebratory performance begins with "From Before," a poem Caulker wrote about a temple in Africa. A lone dancer moves in and out of the fog before the stage literally brightens up with the signature piece, "Juba," a tribute to tap-dancer William Henry Lane. "Juba" also holds a special place in Caulker's recollections, as this piece was done when Ko-Thi appeared at the Mitsui Festival in Tokyo in 1990. It was a first at many levels, especially for the performers.

"That experience for some was the first time they were on a plane flight, much less out of the country," Caulker recalls. "We were treated with such respect there."

Respect and renown have followed the troupe over the course of its history, be it performing at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York City to appearing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music three times for its "DanceAfrica" series. Then there's the Harbor Festival in Toronto, where Caulker made sure the performers got to see more than just the inside of the theater.

"I wanted them to be able to go beyond the tour bus," Caulker says of taking the group to one of the most historic attractions in North America. "The whole company got to stand there and see Niagara Falls."

About 150 artists and technicians have been a part of Ko-Thi over the years, as well as almost 100 guest artists. And the troupe now has Ton Ko-Thi, featuring children as young as 4 years old.

What does Caulker see as her greatest accomplishment over the past 40 years? "It's here in the people," she responds instantly. "There is an accomplishment I see in my research coming to fruition onstage. But it's not possible without the dancers and musicians onstage. This is more than a one-woman show."

Reflections runs May 15-16 in the Mainstage Theatre at UW-Milwaukee's Peck School of the Arts. For more information, call (414) 229-4308 or visit: www.ko-thi.org.