‘Voices of Strength’ allows African women to express themselves in movement


Voices of Strength, Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa appears in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center on October 4-5, 2012. (Sarah L. Voisin/WASHINGTON POST)

“I wanted to slip into the skin of a diva,” said Nadia Beugre, a dancer-choreographer from the Cote d’Ivoire, in a question-and-answer session after her performance Thursday at the Kennedy Center.

Dressed in jeans and speaking softly in French to an interpreter, she seemed not only far from divalike; she was also worlds away from the brutish, self-loathing being she had embodied in her provocative one-woman display, “Quartiers Libres.”

In that piece, she had picked her way down one of the Terrace Theater’s aisles and onto the stage wearing stilettos and a minidress, microphone in hand, singing a gentle folk tune. But she didn’t bear the diva trappings easily — her discomfort (which soon became our discomfort) was the point. During her stumbling progress in those heels, the microphone cord, which Beugre wore around her neck like a coil of rope, soon became a stifling noose.

Stripping to her underwear didn’t free her from entrapment. At that point we watched Beugre slowly stuff a large plastic trash bag in her mouth, inch by gagging inch.

These and other moments from the program “Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance and Theatre by Women From Africa” were uncomfortably and unforgettably visceral. The grinding inequalities and cruelties of the artists’ lives were front and center, particularly in Beugre’s work. She threw herself onto heaps of plastic bottles, and shared some of that sense of mistreatment with the audience through direct confrontation, proffering her microphone — or just a mute, unsettling stare — to patrons in their seats.

“Correspondances,” created and performed by Kettly Noel, from Haiti and Mali, and Nelisiwe Xaba, from South Africa, was more playful, drawing on the two women’s comic interactions, though it had its sharp edges, too. Speaking to the audience about all the things money can buy, Noel adds that “with money in Africa, you can take babies, little boys, little girls . . . ”

To a sendup of stereotyped aspects of femininity — fragility, preoccupation with mirrors and men — the performers added bulging, leaky rubber udders, which descended from the rafters. The women drenched themselves in the milky liquid and slid around the stage like children playing — or drowning.

Watching these two works, I was reminded of how war is often described, as stretches of dullness punctuated by searing havoc. In both pieces, the emotional tension was only fitfully maintained, and they cried out for a director’s discerning eye.

But I’m not sorry I saw them. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen performance artists abandon themselves to this extent. Are American artists less angry or outspoken now than in, say, Karen Finley’s heyday in the late 1980s (when chocolate-smearing entered the act), or have artistic trends simply changed? Are these African women making their own way through somewhat similar thematic territory, or are they mining a new vein of contemporary dance-theater expression? This is a movement to keep one’s eye on.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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