Above: Nora Chipaumire mid-sketch at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)
It’s taken me an unprecedented MONTH to react to this artist, primarily because her residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) had such a profound impact on me. My interactions with Nora Chipaumire started because of a history professor who invited me to one of MANCC’s “entry points.” I had been to one other such “informal showing” before, and I had never been more intrigued by a dance event.* MANCC doesn’t present performances; instead, they invite choreographic fellows to come for residencies and the public only ever sees their work in its most embryonic and mutable phases. This takes pressure off of the dancer/choreographers so that they can concentrate on movement and experimentation, but it also creates a qualitatively different atmosphere for reception. It’s an environment that I have come to prefer as a more accessible way of wrapping my head around dance compositions.
During the few weeks between that initial invitation and the last showing of her collaborative piece, I have been humbled to do research for, work with, learn from, and laugh with Nora Chipaumire. She’s a person who enters the room with an irresistible magnetism about her. She says more with every detail of her body and movement than any other artist I have ever seen, and not only with her movement onstage. For example, Chipaumire cuts her hair like the male warriors in her clan:
Above: Chipaumire sports her “lion” hair during a rehearsal
Despite the centrality of natural hair to an aesthetic of Afro-centrism in African American style and culture, it’s probably difficult for most Americans to understand the full symbolic effect of this look for Chipaumire. Beyond being an international traveler, a renowned artist, financially independent woman, and generally boisterous personality, grooming this look smashes up Zimbabwean gender roles and norms even further. When she dances, she draws her vocabulary from an equally in-your-face repertory of movement.
One of the most poignant and fascinating images from her recent work involves an image of a Zimbabwean man who was burned alive in South Africa. Rather than embody a passive (if panicked) human torch, Chipaumire’s version of this person focuses on his humanity, his agency as an individual to experience suffering. The informal showing featured the music of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited (in the flesh!), but I watched Nora rehearse this sketch to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, which lent both an window of intimacy into that person’s relationship with his Creator and a globalizing effect to this image of violence (particularly since Islam is widespread in Africa). The result embodied in performance the suffering of many people around the world, but most obviously and painfully the Zimbabweans who have recently experienced xenophobia and violence in South Africa.
Above: Chipaumire “on fire” at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (Photo taken by Al Hall)
Chipaumire’s choreography juxtaposes of horrifically painful images behind masks of utter bliss: “everything’s fine, I’m fine, I’m wonderful, life is good” . . . complete with toothy minstrel grins. The whole atmosphere reeks of Dunbar’s masquerade, now thrown into stark contemporary relief through a more global light. Bondage, capture, torture, beating, and burning move past this mask, however, all with a sense of personhood and dignity that gives voice to the many thousands of voiceless suffering in Zimbabwe. Chipaumire’s process, moreover, comments on violence in a manner that extends a borderless statement of personhood both toward and on behalf of all who suffer needlessly.
*Sincerest thanks to MANCC, Nora, and all of the others involved with this project (you know who you are) for a wonderful two weeks, permission to use photos, and the opportunity to hang out with Nora, Thomas, and the Blacks Unlimited.