Richard Loring had a gut feeling. He felt if he could gather enough resources and talent, he could create an African dance and music spectacle as good as, if not better than, “Riverdance.”
Naysayers called him “insane.” That didn’t dissuade him. Neither did near bankruptcy. Nor did the lack of seasoned performers in his adopted home of South Africa. The producer just knew he could create a sensation.
He did. It’s called “African Footprint,” and the spectacle that spans centuries of South African dance and music will hit the boards for two nights at Proctors this week. It has been hailed as an “explosive stampede of song and dance.” And as Loring predicted, critics compare “African Footprint” to “Riverdance,” as it holds that same irresistible and universal appeal. Better still, the show inspires a sense of hope and healing.
“It has a dramatic message of peace,” said the actor/director from Guernsey Island in Britain. “Discover each other, accept each other and be at peace with each other.”
As South Africa’s longest-running show, Loring and his group of 30 performers have appeared before Nelson Mandela, President Clinton and Prince Charles. And now on its first American tour, Loring is garnering more support for “African Footprint.” Actor Louis Gossett Jr. traveled from Los Angeles to New Orleans for the show’s first tour stop. Gossett found “African Footprint” so moving that he now wants to become a part of the show — producing or narrating or both. That doesn’t really surprise Loring. He expected success all along.
Worth the struggle
“I don’t know how I knew,” said Loring, speaking from South Africa. “I do know when the show premiered on Millennium night and was broadcast around the world to millions of people, that was a defining moment in my life.”
But getting “African Footprint” up was a struggle. Loring mortgaged his house for cash and then started to look for talent. In 1998, he traveled the countryside, auditioning hundreds of disadvantaged youth. He selected 30 to attend his newly formed performing-arts school in Soweto.
“I knew if they were given the right chance, the opportunity, we could go around the world,” said Loring.
But not every student stayed. Some were dissatisfied by the hours of rigorous vocal and dance instruction. They wanted to perform, not learn. Once the show started to take shape, others were frustrated with the creative process. It took 16 months for Dave Pollecut (“Shaka Zulu”) to compose the music and Debbie Rakusin and David Matamela to choreograph the dances. And once the show was ready to stage, many left because they didn’t want to commit to night after night at the theater.
“I lost six of them through the creative process,” said Loring, who at that time was on the verge of losing his house. “Then when the show was up, five or six cast members didn’t want to perform because they had a soccer game or a sister’s husband died and they need to dedicate a tombstone.”
Loring told them they are either in or out. Those who stayed are glad they did. Their first outing was the live New Year’s Eve broadcast in 1999. Set in Mandela’s old prison cell, the cast performed the stick dance, banging on the cell bars in a display of strength and agility. It was an instant hit that launched Loring and his collaborators’ evening-length spectacle. The finishing touch came along when Loring met poet Don Mattera. His dramatic poem “This Land South of Africa Will be Healed” unifies the show’s vignettes.
“His words are strong and powerful,” said Loring.
All the ingredients
Five months later, the full-blown “African Footprint” stepped onto the stage at Globe Theatre in Johannesburg. With the primal drumbeat as its heart, the extravaganza was laced with kwela-jive, gumboot, tap, acrobatics, contemporary ballet, hip-hop pantsula as well as soulful ballads. This series of rousing, colorful tableaux played for seven years.
“There was so much excitement,” remembered Loring. “It was 16 people on stage — black, white, male, female, various ethnic groupings. It had all the ingredients. You could look at the faces in the audience and know that you struck it.”
“African Footprint” has since spent 21⁄2 years in Europe, six months in Australia and toured Asia. Finally, on the shores of America, Gossett, speaking to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, says the pulse of “African Footprint” is still strong. He described it as “minutes where you can’t breathe, it’s so good.”
Loring never doubted it.
“If you don’t reach for the stars, where will you finish up?” asked Loring. “Getting here was my whole life’s journey.”
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
HOW MUCH: $42, $32 and $25
MORE INFO: 346-6204 or www.proctors.org