MIRIAM, Nora Chipaumire’s new performance piece, consumed (as in “to fill somebody’s mind or attention” or be “fully consumed by a desire for new experiences”) the audience at the N4th Theater last weekend. One of whom was my granddaughter Teresa who said that MIRIAM left her feeling excited and joyful and like she had experienced something new that she wanted to know more about. She didn’t say ‘consumed’ but that seemed to be the experience she was describing!
Nora, Okwui Okpokwasili, and the team were here for a wonderful week of rehearsing, teaching and visiting, for two unique and powerful performances and a final evening of Academy Award-show viewing. After our brilliant first JOURNEYS week with Philippe Blanchard and company, it was almost an embarrassment of riches to be equally awed and overjoyed by a second week of all-around great performance and fantastic friendship.
Nora Chipaumire is, quite simply, a powerful presence in any setting. On the stage— motionless, moving, silent, sound-making; talking, teaching, writing about dance; sitting on the couch commenting on Hollywood fashion choices; or in her mom’s photos from a past life in Zimbabwe.
Although I have only known Nora for a few years I have not wanted to take my eyes off her since seeing her first solo. She is one of a few performers I know who seems to concentrate more than her share of the universe’s energy completely within her own skin. When she is performing that energy field is connecting with other artists in the work and with the audience in quite a special way—like a fierce but friendly molecular exchange.
Okay, so that is too esoteric-sounding but it is as good a description as any of the way I respond to Nora the creative presence.
MIRIAM is a work about ‘othering’ and about the burdens of iconic women, i.e. Miriam Makeba. I mention this because I came away from the performance empowered by the camaraderie and authority that result from sharing dark places, with no experience of othering or otherness…the opposite in fact!
The darkness of the space, both for performers and audience pulled me right into the middle of the action. The separation from the performers/performance we normally experience—lit stage/dark seating area—are gone. I’m there. With the performers. It is a dense dark until your eyes adjust and the seemingly random bits of brightness eliminate our existential night fear. Flashlight, spotlight, headlight, bulb-light. match-light, exit-light. And there are strange sticks and shiny shapes scattered around the yard/field/cave, random bits of trinkets and trash. And totems—perhaps? It’s a space in Africa, maybe Zimbabwe, Nora’s birthplace and home. I treasure “magic places” (we each have our own!). Mine include Christiania, an area in Copenhagen, settled by the counter-culture and still a sacred spot of “otherness” lit with candles and Christmas light strings and scented with smoke from small wood fires crackling and vegetables roasting and coffee boiling and tobacco and grass inhaling/exhaling. And Norway with thousands of small stones transformed into whimsical sculptures, towers, bridges, troll dwellings blanketing the mountainsides. And Haiti—an entire magic country full of color and smell and rubble and confusion and voodoo. But NOW I’m with Nora and Okwui in this newly created magic place that used to be the N4th Theater.
So…in this small warm littered space to which I have been invited dwell two women. Or are they just passing through? The shouts, grunts, threats and soliloquies speak of intimidation and victory and of women’s losses and women’s gains. So…I am a woman and I am at home and comfortable here with Nora and Okwui and whatever other spirits inhabit our friendly dark.
MIRIAM is not a story or a dance. MIRIAM is a big human experience.
Nora’s biography is long and impressive—degrees in law and dance, Bessies (New York Dance and Performance Awards), years as the featured performer with Urban Bush Women and positions in many colleges/recipient of multiple awards. She is married to the love of her life, a dance artist of comparable talent and a quite powerful presence himself. She is making new work that moves in yet another direction—and will eventually involve various family members from Zimbabwe, London and other far-flung places within Nora’s sphere of interest and world of possibilities.