In the not-so-distant past, white explorers, colonizers, missionaries, and historians referred to Africa as “the dark continent” or dramatized it as “darkest Africa.” They may have been alluding to the skin color of most of its native inhabitants, but certainly to their own inability (and unwillingness) to understand its customs and lore. Over two September weeks, at two different New York theaters, choreographers born in African countries (and all but one still living there) confronted that perceived darkness, especially the part of it that involves powerlessness among women.
It’s very dark in the new BAM Fisher where Nora Chipaumire’s Miriam is about to begin. Still, spectators filing into the four-sided seating may be able to make out a columnar mylar mirror and a ladder; strands of yellow plastic caution tape link them to a piano bench bearing objects, one of which may be a mask or a skull. The single spotlit image is a clear plastic gallon jug filled with water; there’s a hole in it, and liquid drips resonantly into a pan below.
The luminous jug is more visible than the creator and star of Miriam. A leg sticking up out of what appears to be a dark mound covered with small stones is the only sign of Chipaumire. You might first imagine the leg as something amputated from a store-window model, until it re-arranges itself, and the rise and fall of the stones confirms that the choreographer is there. Breathing.
Then it gets much darker.
Like other pieces that Chipaumire has choreographed since leaving Urban Bush Women in 2008, Miriam speaks about female power, political struggles in her native Zimbabwe, and the spiritual poisons and greed that colonialism spread through Africa. Miriam, however is more layered in its vision—wilder, messier. The title refers to the great South African singer Miriam Makeba, who spoke out against apartheid; to Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, whose strength and bravery have long been downplayed; and the Virgin Mary (“Miriam” in Aramaic), who had a notable motherhood visited upon her unasked.
Someone who hadn’t digested the information that Chipaumire provided about her new work in a program note most probably wouldn’t have guessed her sources. I hadn’t read the note or several published interviews before I saw Miriam, and the three legendary figures aren’t clearly visible in the work; Chipaumire presents herself— a woman heroic in scale, fearless, thrilling in intensity—as an embodiment of their power and sense of mission. Makeba—who lived as an exile for most of her life and died in 2008 during a performance after singing her famous song, “Pata, Pata”— was revered as “Mama Africa.”
In Miriam, Chipaumire digs into layers of ritual and history, scattering allusions the way she scatters the stones weighing her down. Half-heard words that speak slightingly of African women might have come from the report, “Suppression of Savage Customs,” prepared by the evil Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (another stated influence on the choreographer).
In accord with Chipaumire’s wishes (and perhaps those of her director, Eric Ting), her lighting and set designer, Olivier Clausse, gives her darkness, firelight, and the occasional glare of noonday sun. She is committed to mystery, perhaps in part to acknowledge and counter the colonizers’ view of African women as unknowable—“primitive,” ignorant, and created to be subjugated. When the house lights go out, we hear her breathing and moaning—then the sound of footsteps. Two tall figures, their shapes complicated by garments and headgear we can’t make out, walk heavily around the perimeter of the performing area, guided by the flashlight one of them carries. Gossipy voices erupt in the score by Cuban composer-pianist Omar Sosa. Suddenly, the flashlight’s beam and a stronger voice emanate from atop the ladder.
Now comes Chipaumire’s most breathtakingly enigmatic image. She’s writhing and rolling and whimpering, tangled in a large crumpled ball of heavy-duty black plastic. At first, I think there may be two people in it. Quick! How many legs poke out? How many arms? But the long struggle is just Chipaumire giving birth to herself, and when she shrieks, the lights come on bright enough to make the watcher squint. The speaker with the flashlight turns out to be another vibrant performer, Okwui Okpokwasili, and she’s smoking a cigarette, patronizingly tossing some down to the other woman.
At this point, Okpokwasili is Chipaumire’s oppressor—holding a bullhorn and barking out numbers or words that induce Chipaumire to make moves. These responses differ little from one another, but they cause Okpokwasili to moan in pleasure. Yet she remarks drily, “This needs work”— three words that wed a history of exploited labor to the New York rehearsal studio.
The two women are more often warring sisters, alter egos, mirror images. They stomp and kick, yell and squeak in gibberish, shift roles, cross centuries. Everything they do comes into being like fragments of who-can-be-sure-what that are floating by — leaves on a stream. An object I couldn’t initially identify turns out to be a vessel of water. At one point Chipaumire—heroine and victim, truth seeker—bends over it and washes her face; the already smudged traces of ashy facial adornment don’t completely come off. Does everything contain its opposite? The costumes by Naoko Nagata and accessories by Malika Mihoubi suggest both trash and ruined tribal finery; an object attached to Okpokwasili’s shoulder looks like a battered wing. Sosa (who’s also the second figure trekking through the dark), sound designer Lucas Indelicato, and his assistant, Allen Sanders, create an eerie, similarly disrupted aural landscape, alive with voices and creakings and fragments of piano music and insistent drums.
The enigmas are fascinating, also maddening. You can’t be sure where Chipaumire is heading or exactly what she’s building in this stew of mingling flavors—half known, half unfamiliar. In the end, she is speaking of the “crushed strong smell of jasmine” and delivering a last letter to the mother evoked by that scent. “Mother, I have become you,” she says. Could the mother be, in part, Africa itself, as well as the dark, half-explored continent of selfhood?
The four contemporary female choreographers from Africa whose programs opened New York Live Arts’ fall season are not well known here; some are making their first visit. They will, I imagine, be much talked about by the time they finish their six-city U.S. tour of “Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance and Theater by Women of Africa” (curated and produced by MAPP International Productions and presented in partnership with the Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium). I regret that I was unable to see Program B, which featured works by Maria Helena Pinto and Bouchra Ouizguen.
Nelisiwe Xaba, Kettly Noël, and Nadia Beugré, the choreographers featured on Progam A, share with Chipaumire the theme of women’s empowerment, specifically that of black women. They are no strangers to revolutions, dictatorships, apartheid, or the misogyny of radical Islam. In their Correspondences, Xaba and Kettly Noël take a satiric, at times humorous approach to African women’s struggles. Beugré’s vision is darker, her Quartiers Libres an ordeal that induces a visceral response in the audience.
Another theme shapes Correspondences: the artistic relationship that developed between these two choreographers from different countries. Xaba is from South Africa; Noël was born and raised in Haiti, but has lived and worked in Mali since 1999. A row of clothes bags hanging at the back of the stage provides onstage changes of attire that chart the women’s shifting identities (costumes by Joël Andrianomearisoa) . The music involves sources as disparate as Blossom Dearie and John Cage.
When Correspondences begins, Xaba itemizes the number of mirrors in her domain. Obviously she needs more; she has to check her lipstick in the shiny toes of her high-heels. What with the shoes and the dress, she has a bit of a problem sinking into a split. Kettly enters through the audience with a suitcase—and I mean through, not just down the aisles. She takes her time greeting strangers with kisses—oh so sweet, so. . . feminine! Watching her carry on, Xaba’s big eyes get bigger. Who is this person? When Kettly bustles onto the stage, like the uninvited guest who’s ready to do a makeover on your house, startles Xaba with a kiss, and takes a stance, Xaba gets down on the floor and checks her visitor’s underwear. A little encounter in which they bump hips gets fiercer and fiercer; these aren’t just flirty girls teasing each other.
Yes, they become friends and social-dance together. What they have in common is greater than their differences. They also dance—twisting, turning, falling back— with their hands around their own throats as if caressing gestures were also strangling them, silencing them. They enact a lesson in cross-cultural adaptations. Kettly, wearing a backpack stuffed with doll babies and standing on a table, figures out meaningful equivalents for the French ballet terms that Xaba calls out. For “pas de chat,” she gets down on her knees and miaows. For “en dehors,” she opens her legs to show her crotch, for “piqué,” she mimes stabbing herself—all the while struggling to understand the words and keep the “children” from falling out.
The two choreographers are good at creating images with double (even triple) meanings. In one of the most compelling vignettes, Kettly opens her suitcase and takes out a rag doll—a very white doll—white skin, limp white dress, fair hair— about three feet tall. Holding its long, thin arms, Xaba carefully makes its skinny legs walk. It can spin when she grasps it by only one arm or, less kindly, by its hair. The images of a mother teaching a daughter to walk, a strong woman helping a weaker one, and a strong force controlling and punishing a woman’s every move revolve around one another.
A speech that Noël delivers after turning her attention again to us begins proudly with “I am a woman” and moves to such topics as the love of money and how those with a lot of it can buy Africa. The text of her speech is projected on a screen at the end, but it seems heavy-handed in relation to everything else that happens. In the end what could be suspended plastic gloves swollen with fluid hang above the women’s heads, the fingers projecting like teats. The performers bite these to drink, to squirt fluid on each other, to smear it on themselves. Water comes out of one glove, I think, a milky substance out of the other. Forget the discarded high heels, the pretty dresses, the women’s differences. They’re being nourished for combat and don’t care how dirty things get.
Xaba and Noël slyly charm us with their mockery and their skill as actor-dancers. Beugré, who comes from the Côte d’Ivoire, makes no such attempts. Like Noël, she enters through the audience, bending over a spectator now and then. She’s singing in a language I don’t know, and by the time she reaches the stage, she’s chanting in counterpoint to a medley of recorded voices (Boris Hennion created the live interactive sound). Her title, Quartiers Libres, can mean “free territory,” and Beugré is struggling to claim it. A tall curtain made of strings of crushed and empty plastic water bottles (designed by Laurent Bourgeois) calls to mind the mountains of refuse that people in need pick over. The bottles are beautiful; they gleam in Christopher Kuhl’s lighting. But they are damaged, used up.
Beugré, too, shines in her silver dress. Like Xaba and Noël, she begins wearing high-heeled shoes. The microphone’s cord, looped several times around her neck, resembles a gray necklace. Sitting on a chair, she opens her legs and shows her black underpants; she lifts the dress to reveal her black bra. She isn’t trying to look beautiful. Off comes the dress; the shoes hang from her bikini like trophies. Her subject is speaking out, taking action. Before undressing, she carries the mic to various spectators and holds it to their faces, although what we hear are grinding and roaring sounds.
Having writhed and twisted violently, Beugré is dangerously tangled in the cord when she ventures into the audience for the second time. She bends over certain viewers, looking at them; one woman touches her comfortingly. Then she’s in front of me, bending down to stare into my face. In a voice so quiet it might be rusted, she says, “Help me” and bows her head. I start to pass the wire loops back over her head very carefully, a handful at a time. When her neck is finally free, she says “Merci” and returns to the stage. I’m shaken for many reasons.
Objects threaten her, silence her. When she leaps and dives into the bottles, they suddenly seem like prison bars. She holds part of the mic’s cord between her teeth; then jams the mic itself into her mouth and keeps it there for a while. In her most terrifying act, she devours herself into silence by systematically cramming a large black garbage bag into her mouth until only a corner of it is hanging out. She keeps it there for what seems like an unbearably long time.
By the end of Quartiers Libres, she has smashed many bottles by falling on them. And not just those in the hanging structure. She worms her way into a garment made of them; it’s been sitting on the stage all along, resembling a giant tutu. The bottles quiver with her breathing, creak and crackle when she falls on them or wrenches them off one by one and throws them away. Is she free? Temporarily. She bends to bless the stage and walks away.