Editorial Review

Dancer finds even a little light can be illuminating
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, March 29, 2013

Darkness permeates choreographer Nora Chipaumire’s latest work, “Miriam.” The hour-long piece begins in near blackness, forcing viewers to let their eyes adjust and, Chipaumire hopes, activate their other senses.

“It is disconcerting, but I think it is also liberating at the same time,” the Zimbabwean-born choreographer says of dancing in the dark, with sometimes just a headlamp or a bare light bulb illuminating the stage.

But the murkiness clears up when Chipaumire explains that “Miriam,” which was inspired by the late South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba -- Mama Africa, as her many fans called her -- also draws from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” about a journey into a remote part of the continent.

“Given the context of the history,” Chipaumire says, “which made it possible for Conrad to go to the Congo and write that very anti-imperialistic work, but clearly with extreme racist sensibilities that reflect the time, [the book] raises the question, when we look back, how far have we come?”

That question lies at the foundation of “Miriam” for Chipaumire, 47, who continues to wrestle with the idea of being an “other” -- one who was born and raised in one culture but lives and works in another.

The piece also features performer Okwui Okpokwasili and a score by Cuban composer Omar Sosa. Both women appear strong, fearless, imposing: Chipaumire’s limbs muscular, Okpokwasili’s gaze fearsome. As they carry sculptural burdens on their backs, the two navigate a stage littered with detritus, including piles of rocks and sundry recycled man-made materials -- part trash, part treasure.

The choreographer, who laughs long and easily in conversation, reveals something subtle beneath the chaos and power-packed movement: a sensibility she gleaned from Makeba’s persona. Chipaumire says that through her voice, art and femininity, Makeba exhibited a quiet yet commanding presence, all while fighting apartheid and promoting civil rights.

Thus, “Miriam,” amid its murky shadows, finds its interplay between light and darkness, power and delicacy.

“I know that people assume and want to see the light of these angels [like Makeba],” Chipaumire says, “but I am more interested in their dark, their human side, which made her a little bit more interesting and more of something I could attempt to do.”

She says she hopes audiences will open themselves up and rely on more than just their eyes to appreciate the message “Miriam” delivers.

“Everything,” Chipaumire has written, “must be brought to bear to experience ‘Miriam.’ ”