Umoja - The Spirit of Togetherness presented by Ysis Entertainment at the Elgin Theatre (139 Yonge). Opens August 3 and runs to August 22, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, mats Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm and Sunday 3 pm. $35-$85. 416-872-5555.
Lucy Hamlet is moving her upper body from side to side, demonstrating the similarities between South African and Caribbean dance. "It's all about the waist," says the choreographer-turned-producer.
"Just as traditional Zulu dances are very similar to what the local Afro-Caribbean groups do here, what we call wining in the Caribbean, the dance of calypso, is very similar to kwaito, the dance of the youth in South Africa."
The co-founder of the French Caribbean dance troupe Movement Dominique would know. As the Canadian connection for Umoja, the internationally touring musical about the history of blacks in South Africa, for the past five months she's been focused on the movement and rhythms of the former apartheid nation.
"It seems our music is always being born out of oppression," says the Dominica-born artist and entrepreneur, whose latest venture brings Umoja to the Elgin for a three-week run.
"What is amazing is that people have been able to go within and find the strength to create such beautiful music to keep going. It's true of jazz, it's true of blues, it's true of calypso in the Caribbean."
And, it's true of South African music.
While not the first large-scale musical to come out of the country (Ipi Ntombi, about a Johannesburg miner separated from the girl he loves and from his tribal roots, toured during the 70s and 80s with a cast of 50), Umoja, created by Ipi Ntombi alumni Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, paints a broader canvas than its predecessors.
"It's not a story as much as a historical journey of the music and the dance and what's behind it," explains Hamlet.
South African blacks have had to be innovative, and examples abound in Umoja.
A rich a cappella tradition developed out of lack of access to instruments; gumboot dancing was created as a language among miners who, chained to underground workstations, were prohibited from speaking; and laws preventing public gatherings of blacks led to the development of shebeens, or speakeasies, where they could play jazz and dance.
Despite all this, Umoja - the Swahili word for unity - has been criticized by some for not sufficiently addressing the treatment of blacks under apartheid. Hamlet sees it differently.
"Apartheid isn't the focus," she says. "This is our history, and our history is bigger than apartheid. It started before apartheid, it went through apartheid and got beyond it. Our history isn't just one thing, it's many things."
In Umoja, that includes modern-day kwaito and ancestral tribal choreography and high-energy arrangements.
"Every time I watch, I learn a new move," confides Hamlet, who hopes to join the cast onstage for the final performance.
"It makes me want to dance."