Choreographer Nora Chipaumire expects her audiences to work as hard as she does, and her new piece, “Miriam,” is no exception.
“I don’t think anyone will sit through this very easy,” she said.
Chipaumire, an internationally known, Zimbabwe-born, New York City-based dancer, challenges stereotypes in several different arenas and examines the responsibilities that women carry in their lives in her latest creation, which explores the worlds and influences of several women, all named Miriam.
The journey began with the death of South African singer and anti-apartheid activist and Grammy Award-winning singer Miriam Makeba, known as “Mama Africa.”
“She was the one human being that I held really up there — she was an icon of mine,” Chipaumire said. That led her to explore other iconic Miriams, including the biblical Miriam of Levite origin. “The sister of Moses danced and sang as a way to lead,” Chipaumire said. “Clearly, as a dancer, I was intrigued by that.”
Not to be left out is Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose name was derived from the Hebrew name Miriam.
“There’s something about these women, their strength, their positions in their societies and how they were held up as icons, and the Virgin Mary is clearly the biggest of them all, as a symbol for women of good or what God-fearing women aspire to be — pure, virginal, forever beautiful and forever young,” Chipaumire said. “All those started to come up and be embodied in the name ‘Miriam.’ ”
Beginning with word
The new piece marks a departure for Chipaumire in her artistic process, being the first work that she has done that started with the written word. “With ‘Miriam,’ I intentionally wanted to write a play,” she said, so she began working with words before movement. “As a dancer, I can’t stress how awkward that felt.”
While it might have begun as an awkward endeavor, it unfolds on stage as a thought-provoking exploration of the lives of the iconic Miriams, who are portrayed by Chipaumire and Okwui Okpokwasili, a New York dancer of Nigerian descent. “We are just two aspects of the same person,” Chipaumire said.
With each Miriam, Chipaumire uses her imagination to put herself into that woman’s body and to ask herself how it would have felt to be her. For example, she points out how important Makeba’s work was to the rest of the world and wonders what that took from her as a person. “When you have to invest so much time in the work that you do, what do you lose? What do you gain? What does it take to do something? The idea of responsibility is something that I’m deeply interested in,” Chipaumire said.
There is spoken text, both live and recorded, interspersed in the work. Some comes from Joseph Conrad’s 1902 work, “Heart of Darkness,” which explores the brutality and corruption of colonialism on the African continent.
The lighting and visual design, created with Olivier Clausse of Le Mans, France, play a large role in this dance-theater performance. “I’ve created an environment that is very present,” Chipaumire said. “You are invited into this world — it has its own light, its own sound. It’s atypical of what most audiences are expecting in going to a dance concert.”
The intentional setting is designed to engage the audience, “to make the audience complicit” in her world, she said. “The idea that the audience is a part of this history, this future, this present, is a reason why the light and sound are so demanding,” she said. “The light demands that you pay attention.”
She has used everyday objects that would have been thrown away to create what she describes as “a very interesting environment.” Audiences will see bottle caps, buckets, a swinging light bulb, dripping water and caution tape, designed to set the stage as “both a crime scene and a sacred site,” she said.
This refers to her native Africa, which she sees as a crime scene because of the crimes against humanity that have been committed there, as well as a place of ancestry. “It’s the holder of all things ancient and sacred for some reason,” she said.
Chipaumire left her native Zimbabwe when she was 24 in a “self-imposed exile,” which she describes as her own political stance against what was going on in her country, which underwent years of economic and political upheaval, including 20,000 civilian deaths. “It’s my way to say, ‘No, it’s not acceptable,’ ” she said.
Through her explorations into the lives of the iconic Miriams, she hopes to shatter the “huge stereotypical ideas” of the African woman and “just have the African woman be looked at like any other woman in the world on the basis of what a woman is, not these huge blanket, misleading stereotypes,” she said.
The work is set to a soundscape by Cuban composer Omar Sosa. “It’s explosive,” Chipaumire said. “It’s everything that we have learned from classical music to ritual music to punk and rock — it’s all in there,” including nods to Bach and Jimi Hendrix. Sound is critical to the work because of Makeba. “She lived in the world through sound, through voice, so the first building block was that we knew we would have sound to anchor the work,” Chipaumire said.
Chipaumire’s team is an international one, and she views this as an important aspect of the work she creates. “We have different languages, cultures and education, but we come together to create one specific thing. For me, it’s the crossroads of all these differences that make the work so very contemporary, so very present, so very now,” she said.