That deep sense of purpose was in his mind when he thought about how to use other dance genres, as well as Step Afrika’s past works, in “The Migration.” He wanted, he said, the production to have a cohesive narrative “that people could follow without it feeling like we were just dabbing paint on the canvas.”
Step Afrika, based in Washington, D.C., which says it’s the first professional group dedicated to traditional stepping, has spent years researching the form and studying its connections to other kinds of dance. It’s no coincidence that “The Migration,” which begins in West Africa and ends up in Chicago around 1930, was built on that investigation.
“We’ve been around now 23 years,” said Mfoniso Akpan, the group’s artistic director. “A production like this really lets people know that the art form has advanced so much that you don’t just see it on a college stage, but in major theaters.”
Ms. Akpan added: “It’s not just a step routine. We’re taking this cultural art form and walking you through a journey so that you can see what life was like around the 1800s and the early 1900s.”
The production started out as a conversation between C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika’s founder and executive director, and Dorothy Kosinski, the director of the Phillips Collection in Washington, which houses half of Lawrence’s “Migration” panels. (The Museum of Modern Art has the other half.)
“I always wanted to do something with the visual-arts world, but I didn’t know that the Phillips Collection owned 30 of the ‘Migration’ panels,” Mr. Williams recalled. “I said, ‘I want to do something with Jacob Lawrence,’ and I couldn’t believe it when she said, ‘Sure.’ You don’t really hear that in the collaborative world. You expect there to be a lot more resistance like, maybe not that collection — maybe you could do one of our lesser-known contemporary series.”
Mr. Williams said he ran back to the studio and handed Mr. Sherman, then the artistic director of Step Afrika, the task of turning Lawrence’s work into a performance. Early on, Mr. Sherman said he realized he needed to immerse himself in the artist’s life and work for the piece, which features projections of the “Migration Series.” It was a daunting undertaking.
Mr. Sherman did most of his digging at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. “I went pretty deep into their archives,” he said, looking at Lawrence’s work, and at artifacts and letters and “ads placed in the papers calling for people to come North.” He also got “a feel of the texture of the time when Jacob Lawrence was working, as well as the time that the migration was happening.”
From there, he wrote a 15 or so page document examining all the works that Step Afrika had in its repertory; some, he decided, could be used in “The Migration,” but in a different context. He also choreographed new pieces to help tell the story.
It’s fitting that the evolution of the company and its repertory fed into the work. “The way this came together made it one of our easiest projects ever because the story that we are telling kind of maps the story of our own personal artistic development,” Mr. Williams said. “And we had the narratives of the paintings.”
In “The Migration,” Mr. Sherman incorporates “Wade,” which explores three traditions: stepping, tap and the South African gumboot dance. There’s also “Drumfolk,” credited to the choreographer David Pleasant. This work, Mr. Williams said, was Step Afrika investigating traditions of body percussion rooted in African-American communities since the late 1700s. The Stone Rebellion of 1739 led to the Negro Act of 1740, in which Africans lost the right, along with much else, “to beat drums, blow horns or use any other loud instruments.”
“Drumfolk” pays tribute to what happened after the drums were taken away. “Our bodies,” Mr. Williams said, “became the drum.”
There was also careful consideration about the point at which “The Migration” ends. When African-Americans arrived in Chicago — or at any major destination in the North — the story wasn’t over. But Mr. Sherman was adamant: He wanted the curtain to fall in that joyful place of arrival.
“It gives us a sense of hope, not only for portraying the sense of hope that they would have had,” he said, but also “even as we look at where we are today.”