When Maria Helena Pinto performs in “Voices of Strength,” a two-night program at the Kennedy Center featuring the work of African female director-choreographers, she will wear a bucket over her head.
In her dance, which she originally performed for the National Day of Women in Mozambique, Pinto wanted to address a question: “What would touch me that would also be sincere and be pertinent to the question about issues for women in Mozambique?”
She thought about the woman who, as Pinto once did, feels trapped. She thought about the woman the world ignores. “Sometimes, we don’t know that she exists,” said Pinto, who spoke through a translator. “Sometimes she doesn’t have a face. Sometimes she doesn’t have a name.”
It was that idea, of a woman without a face, that led Pinto to cover her own face. Hence the bucket.
Pinto is just one of five women whose work is featured in the program at the Kennedy Center. Each woman hails from a different African nation: Nadia Beugré is from Ivory Coast, Bouchra Ouizguen is from Morocco, Nelisiwe Xaba is from South Africa, and Kettly Noël is from Haiti and resides in Mali.
The tour has been in the works for years. In 2008, when Cathy Zimmerman, the lead producer and curator for “Voices of Strength,” traveled with other members of the Africa Contemporary Arts Consortium to a performing arts festival in Tunisia, “We noticed a lot of work [was] mostly created and performed by men,” she said.
“But where there are performances choreographed and danced by women, these pieces were extremely strong and very unique.”
Women “were very underrepresented,” Zimmerman said. “We felt very strongly that this is important work and wondered why these voices were not more in the forefront.”
Zimmerman has her own hypothesis. For one, “It’s difficult to support contemporary work anywhere in the world.” She added that African women in particular have a difficult time “being accepted in their culture as choreographers and creators. They just don’t get the support and there are very few mentors for them. . . .
“But nevertheless, these women are doing it. And what’s remarkable is that, I think because of their struggles [and] of how dedicated they have to be to do this work, their voices are really strong. Those who really get through it all really have something to say.
“Bouchra, from Morocco: She’s really breaking the mold in terms of being a creator,” Zimmerman continued. “It’s just not culturally acceptable. While people were really supportive of her studying some traditional dance forms, once she became her own creator and was expressing ideas outside the mainstream, she met with a lot of resistance. And it’s been a real struggle for her. And I think that, in many ways, this can be said about all these women.”
Through a translator, Ouizguen echoed those ideas. “I’m getting a platform with these women to share what we could not share before.”
Zimmerman described Pinto as having been a crucial part of starting the contemporary dance movement in Mozambique.
“I started to realize that this [trapped feeling] was not only an issue that was personal, but there are many women around the world who are having that same sensation,” Pinto said. “And that this [dance] would be a way to expose, looking through the eyes of a woman, issues that are going on for women in society.”
Pinto talked about “certain countries, where the women have to be in silence, where the women have to live under the rules that have been imposed by men,” and the imperative for artists like her to “fight to have a platform, the microphone, the ability to speak. . . .
“Even if it’s not my situation now, I know it’s a situation for many other women. I’m trying to inspire them [so] that they have the courage to come into the light and the strength.”
With this program, “we wanted to provide a counternarrative” to Americans’ preconceived notions about Africans, Zimmerman said. “I think, on our continent, people do tend to think that Africa is one thing. They have a monolithic vision.”
“This is the first time we’re really touring in the United States,” Ouizguen said. “Most of the time what [people] saw from Morocco was more traditional performances. . . . It’s important to see nowadays there are a lot of new artists, new performances. . . . There’s a more progressive mentality in the arts that’s coming out.”
“We are coming from these different countries and representing the issues of women, so there’s a lot of responsibility,” Pinto said. “I have a bit of fear saying that I’m bringing the truth. I’m bringing a truth, not the truth. I’m bringing with me the story of lives of many women.”
She’s hopeful that audience members in Washington, who may have never visited Africa, will get some of the continent brought to them.
“It may be the first experience with these cultures that they ever have,” she said. “And also, perhaps it’s going to open people’s minds about women in the world.”
Oct. 4-5, 2700 F Street NW.