Nora Chipaumire’s new dance work, “Miriam,” has its premiere at BAM Fisher on Wednesday.
By BRIAN SEIBERT
Published: September 11, 2012
Nora Chipaumire is powerful. Nora Chipaumire is strong, imposing, ferocious. So reviewers of this choreographer and dancer have beenpointing out for at least a decade, since she gained prominence as a member of Urban Bush Women. Who could not notice her muscular physique and the deep rivers of energy she can make flow and surge through it? Who would not be impressed by her sculptural head and the arresting face that can stare down an audience?
The work of Nora Chipaumire (pronounced chip-aw-MEE-ray) is dark, heavy. Thematically, the dances that she has made since leaving Urban Bush Women in 2008 often confront the troubled history of her native Zimbabwe, from which she’s been in self-exile since 1989. They express anger, resistance, revolt. They poke at stereotypes of Africa and the black female body. Often the darkness is sensory, the stage lighting dim. Most of the dancing in her 2010 work “lions will roar … ” took place behind an obfuscating scrim.
Yet on a recent afternoon while discussing her latest project, “Miriam,” which has its New York premiere on Wednesday in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s new Fishman Space, Ms. Chipaumire was all smiles. Her big laugh rang through one of her favorite hangouts in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, an establishment run by South African immigrants: Nunu Chocolates.
Okwui Okpokwasili, left, with Nora Chipaumire.
Perhaps the setting accounted for her levity; perhaps, less straightforwardly, the dance’s subject did. The idea for “Miriam” came after the 2008 death of the South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. “I was struck dumb,” Ms. Chipaumire said. “Makeba was the music we would hear in our homes. She was part of the air that I breathed.”
The sudden loss of such a figure, known throughout the world as Mama Africa, got Ms. Chipaumire thinking about longevity and influence. She was intrigued by the similarities of Makeba’s life to her own — Makeba as a girl, an African girl, leaving her family, living in exile for 30 years — and also the differences.
“Makeba had this calm, elegant, almost childlike innocence,” Ms. Chipaumire said. “This beautiful face, smiling. This lightness. Is that the way to success? To be nonthreatening?”
Reflections on grace and femininity led to what she calls another icon, “the most megastar ever,” the Virgin Mary. (There was also an etymological track: the name Mary is derived from the Hebrew name Miriam.) Just as Mary did not choose to be the mother of Jesus, Ms. Chipaumire said she realized, so Makeba did not set out to be Mama Africa; she just wanted to be a singer and stop cleaning houses before apartheid and the South African government got in the way.
“But once the burdens were thrust upon them,” Ms. Chipaumire said of both women, “they accepted them with an elegance that seems — more than admirable — incredible.”
Ms. Chipaumire dug into Makeba’s life. “The parts that we saw projected in public, I think were genuine and true,” she said. “But there was also a part, as with anybody else, that you don’t show to the public.”
Predictably, “Miriam” darkened. Ms. Chipaumire ventured into “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella about barbarism, moral hypocrisy and the corrupting force of colonialism. She read about the African woman on the riverbank: the consort of the rogue European ivory trader, Kurtz. “What would that woman say?” Ms. Chipaumire asked. “What would Makeba have said, had she been free to say what she really thought behind that smile?”
In “Miriam” Ms. Chipaumire gives voice to those imaginings in spoken text, grunts, ululation and dance. Conrad’s exoticized description of the woman is repeated, too, through a megaphone and sometimes garbled to underline colonial incomprehension.
But Ms. Chipaumire isn’t alone onstage. She is joined by Okwui Okpokwasili, who is also physically striking, intense and African, though not in the same way. (Ms. Okpokwasili’s parents are Nigerian, but she was born in the Bronx.) “Miriam” is, in Ms. Chipaumire’s words, “a solo for two people.”
“Okwui helps me embody different personalities who are really the same person,” she said. That person isn’t Miriam Makeba exactly, and viewers of workshop showings of “Miriam” complained to Ms. Chipaumire that they couldn’t find Makeba at all. Fans might notice a subtle nod to that singer’s shamanic breathing, but Omar Sosa’s score, which runs from dense percussion to ruminative electric piano, refers to Bach’s music but not Makeba’s.
Ms. Chipaumire met Mr. Sosa, originally from Cuba, in the Bay Area in the late 1990s, when she was studying at Mills College, getting her first formal training in dance. “Omar was a catalyst in teaching me the Cuban way, which is to accept that you’re African andEuropean,” she said.
Ms. Chipaumire begins the dance underneath a pile of stones, trying to make the emotional burdens more apparent, more physical. The costumes are heavily weighted, and Ms. Chipaumire, at 47, has set herself a test of stamina like never before.
To Ms. Okpokwasili, who started as a dramaturge on the project before becoming a performer, that weight was exciting and challenging, she said in a phone interview. “I would go easier on myself,” she said. “But Nora has such incredible control of her body. And she embraces mystery in a way that I find so compelling.”
The lighting and set designer Olivier Clausse wanted “Miriam” to be bright. He failed entirely to persuade Ms. Chipaumire. The installationlike set instead honors something both creators admire in African creativity, the ability to recycle ordinary materials into beauty. The materials include bare light bulbs, plastic, rubber, police tape.
“It’s sort of a crime scene and sort of a sacred site,” Ms. Chipaumire said. “You’re never quite sure which.”
“Those sorts of spaces aren’t brightly lit,” she continued. “The darkness has to do with fear, with the unknown.” Though at BAM “Miriam” is performed up close and in the round, spectators have to work to see, much less understand.
“Yes!” Ms. Chipaumire said, laughing. “I love to make the audience work! And why shouldn’t they? I’m asking you to smell, to hear, to feel, to become complicit.”
“Miriam” runs from Wednesday through Saturday at the BAM Fisher’s Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, near Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100, bam.org.