Milwaukee's Ko-Thi Dance Company is the sort of cultural treasure most cities envy. The African dance troupe has spent the past 30 years educating and entertaining audiences worldwide and has built a reputation for excellence in cities across the country and around the globe.
Ko-Thi (pronounced Ko-THEE) was founded in 1969 in Milwaukee by Ferne Yangyeitie Caulker, a native of Sierra Leone, West Africa and a UWM professor. Caulker wanted to create an artistic company that reflected the culture of Milwaukee's African-American population with the same cultural impact on the city as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra or the Milwaukee Ballet Company. The word Ko-Thi comes from the Shebro language of Sierra Leone and means "seek out African roots."
The dance troupe travels internationally, and while it is known for its performances of African and Caribbean music and dance, Ko-Thi takes its art a step further and uses it to educate its audiences about African history and culture. In every city Ko-Thi performs, its members also hold presentations at schools, community lectures and classes.
"Ko-Thi provides African-Americans a chance to get knowledge about Africa that isn't taught in schools," said Bonita Berrios, Ko-Thi's marketing director. "But it also teaches people of all races about African culture."
Each season, Ko-Thi performs six shows in Milwaukee and runs an international tour of 10-15 shows. The troupe has performed at Walt Disney World, at numerous colleges throughout the country and made its international debut at Tokyo's Mitsui Festival in 1990. It is Wisconsin's only professional touring dance company.
Yet for all the prestige, a tight budget requires Ko-Thi performers to deal with situations other world-renowned dance companies would not tolerate. The 24 adult performers (about 40 kids perform in Ton Ko-Thi, the troupe's children's division) are limited to 12 hours of practice time each week because they use UWM studios and therefore are constrained by the needs of other UWM programs. The lack of practice time is especially trying for Ko-Thi, which must train all the performers that join the troupe.
"A ballet or symphony company can go into any city, have auditions and find people who are already trained," Caulker said. "We don't have that luxury."
Caulker hopes the company will be able to build an endowment fund but says the community needs to put its money where its mouth is and offer Ko-Thi, with a budget of less than $1 million, some real support.
"Ko-Thi is the example whenever Milwaukee wants to claim its diversity," Caulker said. "That's a compliment, but the money doesn't come in like it should. With the ballet and the symphony, everyone understands the cultural importance of it in a community. That's not occurring yet for Ko-Thi. It is not yet a cultural status symbol for someone to sit on Ko-Thi's board of directors and donate a half-million dollars. Buying a ticket for the show doesn't support the company the other 364 days a year."
As Caulker sees it, Ko-Thi is a quality of life factor for Milwaukee.
"You cannot attract high-end CEOs to a city if there's only brats, beer, football and basketball," she said. "People move to a city because there are cultural things going on, not because of the Packers or the Bucks. People want Milwaukee to have a symphony and a ballet and will contribute money to keep it here. I look forward to the day when people feel that way about Ko-Thi."
For more on Ko-Thi, visit www.ko-thi.org.