Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Real Chimurenga

Before Nora Chipaumire's "Chimurenga" begins, the audience observes a set of earth, calabashes hanging from rope, a small pile of stones in the center front of the stage, to the right red and black cloth, and a pile of larger stones in the back.  As the solo dance progresses, the set is transformed.  The calabashes were actually hung from wires and were fitted with audio speakers.  With the lights down, they seemed to be large eyeballs watching both performer and audience.  The cloths were additional costumes; the stones were for playing with and throwing.  Chipaumire's set, like the dance as a whole, vacillates; it draws you in with a seductive aesthetic, only to jolt you with dangerous aggression.

Chimurenga was described as meaning revolution or resistance; the literal translation from Southern African language Shona is "struggle."  The dance references the current chimurenga relating to the country's recent elections and Robert Mugabe's almost 30-year rule.  (For those who don't know, the country had two other major chimurengas – the first against British colonial rule, and the second, which led to Rhodesia becoming independent Zimbabwe, against white minority rule.) 

Recurring images of  the childhood joy of playing jacks and the fierce – and stereotypically male – aggression of protesting stone throwers are dominant in the first section of the dance.  (The piece was originally conceived of as three separate dances).  The second section focuses on fun, hip-swinging social-style dancing, alternating with the aggressive movements.  At the end of this section, after reciting a combination of epithets "blackie…monkey…kaffir" and colonial companies' mottos "De Beers…this is for our boys in the bush," Chipaumire half-disrobes and, bare-chested, swaggers across the stage slowly.  It is a challenging moment to watch – the movements are stereotypically those of young black men, whatever their country.  And yet her breasts insist that she is a woman, and the sequence brings to mind the supposed masculinization of black women, whatever their country, whether because of men's absence, or because of war or other male disappearances.

The dance's third section is full of Christian gestures.  For most of this piece her gaze is down or eyes closed in an attitude of prayer.  But even in this mood, chimurenga creeps in – "catching the spirit" shaking becomes angry shaking, which becomes fist-raised resistance.

A video piece of Chipaumire running and posing in graffiti-covered areas was unnecessary except to explicitly mark African urbanity or to link the chimurenga of Zimbabwe to that of, say, Brooklyn.  But the universality of emotion she portrays with her body and movement make the video redundant.  And while the lighting was accomplished and the costumes worked well once on, the dancer clearly had to work to get them on, briefly breaking the performance's spell. 

The dance ends with a recital of childhood joys – "ice cream…boys" – and some traumas – "'hot areas' had nothing to do with the weather."  Finally, her eyes looking to the audience, Chipaumire smiles and asks, "How's it?"

It's very well, thank you.  The dance is powerful and moving; Chipaumire has a commanding stage presence and exquisite control of her body.  According to Charmaine Warren (who led a disappointingly surface pre-performance discussion), the choreographer has said that it is strange to perform this piece in NYC when the "real" chimurenga is happening in Zimbabwe. The pre-show discussion had jujustring worried that the piece would show only African horror and dehumanization, but the piece breathes with full humanity – joy and anger, pleasure and anguish.

Seeing her piece reminds jujustring of the first time reading Amiri Baraka's poetry.  Just as Baraka demonstrates that writing can be both angry and poetic, with "Chimurenga" Chipaumire shows not only that dance can be angry, but that it can do it well.  Most of the "real" chimurenga may be happening in Zimbabwe, but a little piece of it is in New York.

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