Tag Archives: dance

Monáe Puts On a Show in Style

FSU began a new term today, so this past weekend was full of parties. The one to be at Saturday night was Janelle Monáe’s set for Ogelsby Union’s “Last Call Before Fall.” Opening act The Blow didn’t need the clever name to deliver on its promise, but the Monáe show beginning a half hour later was the most put together four piece outfit Tallahassee has seen for a long time.

It takes only a brief look at Monáe & Leftfoot’s video with Big Boi to know that she’s about solid singing and precision dancing (James Brown comes to mind). Her live show is no different. From the white-gloved backup dancers with red tambourines to old-school R&B references all the way back to church with a quote from “All Creatures of Our God and King,” this is an artist who knows her audience and exactly what she wants to say to them.

She’s hired all the right musicians to help her say it, too. Her drummer flashed HSBCU-style stick tricks between gospel and marching tinged time keeping techniques. Her virtuoso guitarist helped her showcase impressive vocal clarity and range with their sophisticated harmonic imagining of Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Smile.” Her man on keys sported dork chic style while holding down both his own part and that of a bass player. All kept up with the tightly choreographed demands of a powerful one hour set.

I first heard about this artist in June, when she got a rave review over at BlackGrooves. I can think of no better artist to kick off FSU’s fall term with our not quite new university president than the fresh but clearly not green Janelle Monáe in her fashionably overstated tuxedo. Here’s wishing them both a good year.

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Featured Artist: Nora Chipaumire

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for ChoreographyAbove: 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:

Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

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.

Photo taken by Al Hall at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography

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.

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Yep, I’m a church musician

I don’t normally write about religion, but I do specialize in music and ritual in my research. I definitely don’t blog about my personal beliefs either (that’s why they call them personal), so let’s just say it took a couple weeks’ worth of contemplation before I finally decided to put this post out there. Here goes…

I’m a church musician; I’m a staff singer in a local Episcopal church, to be precise. Say what you will about organized religion, but generally Episcopalians are amiable and they make it a priority not to hate anyone. Considering the atrocities that have been carried out in the name of many branches of Christianity, as well as the recent schism between these amiable non-haters and their gay-bashing theological nemeses, I’d say Episcopals are doing okay. But I digress…

I sang at the funeral of a recently retired Army engineer the other day. He was a graduate of West Point and a pillar in his community, where he worked to ensure that state policies kept good standards of environmental stewardship in Florida (boy, could they use him now). More importantly, he was a gentle and vocally well-endowed member of our bass section. One of the lines that touched me in the eulogy was something about how we as a community of faith share common suffering with his family, that we stand in solidarity with them in this difficult time. Although the deceased had planned his funeral, including the money it would take to pay staff singers like me to be there, this was true for me as well.

That same week, I had been working with images and stories of xenophobia and persecution in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Some of the blogren have taken recent opportunities to blog for human rights. I have been shocked by the horror of South African violence and the barbarity of Zimbabwe’s current policies on foreign aid. I stand in solidarity with the bewildered and displaced of Zimbabwe, but I cannot possibly share their suffering. Blogging for human rights, however, is only one way of raising awareness.

Tomorrow night at the Maggie Allessee National Center for Choreography, I’m going to see a developing piece called “Zambezi/Limpopo: Anatomy of a Revolution and the Spirit of Zimbabwean Resistance and Survival.” I have had the privilege of getting to know dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire through some research that I’ve done for this piece with several other FSU students. Nora’s powerful performances lend a voice to the thousands of voiceless displaced in and around Zimbabwe. The sketch I saw a few days ago had her dancing the image of a person on fire to the accompaniment of the Muslim call to prayer. I grew up surrounded by rather diverse ecumenical Christian church music, and I have since adopted an even more open stance on world religions and musical ritual. This piece spoke to me from inside a burning person inside a state in crisis. It was truly amazing on both spiritual and aesthetic levels.

Tomorrow’s piece draws from this and other sketches, but Nora will be joined by Zimbabwean revolutionary and world music icon Thomas Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited. Stay tuned for a full feature of Nora (hopefully with some pix) in a few days. Until then, I’m curious what other folks are doing to reflect upon and raise awareness about this and other conflicts affecting human rights? Give me a holler in the comments if you’ve come across something cool…

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