TBA12: Nora Chipaumire’s Art of Darkness

The meaning of "Miriam" lurks in the shadowlands

Racist European colonialists used to call Africa the Dark Continent, revealing more about their own ignorance than its alleged inscrutability. It’s hard to tell whether Zimbabwean-American choreographer Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam,” in which so much meaning is obscured, purposely invokes or criticizes that tradition; like so much else in this intriguing but ultimately elusive production, which was part of the opening weekend of the TBA Festival, it’s just too hard to make out.

In its opening moments,  “Miriam” effectively conjures a sense of mystery and uncertainty as we catch glimpses, through the dim lighting, and hear sounds of someone emerging from a rockpile, perhaps near a river (the sound of dripping water is the first thing we hear). The set also contains vaguely junky objects that seem to evoke a battered landscape, but the lighting was just too dark to make out specifics. In this case, suggesting rather than fully illuminating the subject made dramatic sense, as it conveyed an ominous, shambolic atmosphere that the piece effectively exploits.

But underexposure didn’t work so well when applied to the dancers, Okwui Okpokwasili and Chipamuire, or the texts the playwright’s unnamed character recites. I frequently couldn’t make out the former among the shadows, nor the latter amid competing music and other sound (a brilliant collage concocted by the great jazz pianist Omar Sosa, who thrilled a rapt audience at Portland’s jazz club Jimmy Mak’s a year or so ago), the distortions of the bullhorn through which much of it emerges (often delivered from atop a ladder), and the other dancer’s squeals, grunts and shrieks. If you closed your eyes, their Sharapovian frequency and volume might make you wonder whether you’d wandered into a professional women’s tennis match.

Even when there was plenty of light, it eclipsed the meaning. One solo vivid sequence was backlit by strong bulbs that (at least where I was sitting) shone directly into the audience’s eyes, reducing the dancer to a moving shadow, and I had to squint and shield my eyes so much against the painful glare that I finally gave up and just closed them until the blast subsided.

Nor was the dodgy lighting the only obstacle. Virtually all of the action occurs on about a third of the stage, at stage right. Since that was the side of the theater I was sitting in, it seemed good fortune. But alas, in addition to being in the direct path of that lighting cue, during another sequence, I was also barred from seeing anything but glimpses of one character, because the opened stage curtain lay between her moves and my gaze. TBA has staged events in the round before; that might have helped a lot here.

***

The staging’s lack of visual and sonic clarity reflects that of the dance itself, which (like Big Art Group’s TBA production) attempts to engage some big ideas, but fails to make clear just what insight the artists are offering into them. Judging by the description in the TBA program, we’re supposed to understand that “Miriam” has something to say about its namesake, the great South African musician Miriam Makeba (whose 2008 death helped inspire the piece), colonialism, and “tensions that women face between public expectations and private desires, selflessness and ambition, and the perfection and sacrifice of the feminine ideal.” No doubt those ideas inspired Chipamuire, but what I perceived instead was glimpses of shadows, snatches of words, fragments of meaning, and lots of repetitive (if often compelling) dance moves, squeals and grunts. Not that a work of art, particularly something as abstract as dance, needs to carry a specific narrative, but it should at least give audiences some clue to its meaning.

I wasn’t able to make it to Chipaumire’s presumably explanatory talkback the next day, but if a work of art needs program notes or an artist statement to  break its code and convey its meaning to most of an attentive audience, then it has failed. The best of even the most abstract art usually finds a way to communicate at least an emotional overtone if not a specific meaning, even if it amounts to little more than “wow, that was cool!” But too often — at TBA but also in plenty of other places — artists ponder an issue really hard and wind up creating obscure but inspired connections among ideas and emotions in their heads, yet lack the craft or inclination to elucidate (non-didactically) those connections to audiences who don’t share the references. And even if a major theme of “Miriam” is the impenetrability or mystery of African and American women to outside observers, and I’m by no means sure that it is, the staging renders even that conclusion unclear.

Chipaumire clearly has some powerful ideas about her subject and is striving to dramatize them, but it’s hard to share that emotional response when we’re given so little to go on. Still, despite the inscrutability of most of the text, the stage movement, and the piece’s meaning, “Miriam” offers some impressive moments, striking images (expressive, lunging, sometimes spasmodic slow-motion sequences that unfortunately lacked enough variety or direction for an hour-long piece), the commanding stage presence (when visible) of the two performers, and Sosa’s intoxicating score, which incorporates everything from African drumming to jazz to a snatch of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which apparently symbolizes something about European civilization.

But, like the rest of this promising, initially entrancing but ultimately hermetic production, exactly what that was remains in the shadows.

2 Responses.

  1. okwui okpokwasili says:

    Did you do any research before writing this review? There were only two of us on stage, simply looking at publicity images and reading the corresponding names would have allowed you to correctly identify the performers with their roles. The substance of your review is seriously undermined when you make such a clumsy mistake.

  2. Nowhere in the program was either dancer identified with a character, and the lighting and masks made it very difficult to distinguish faces from where we were sitting. The photos on the TBA site all list only Chipamuire in the captions and also fail to identify which dancer is which. Thanks for supplying that missing information; we’ve revised the post accordingly.

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