The Heart of Darkness To the Soul of Defiance
Like so many dances Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam” begins in darkness, so that you hear the actions onstage before you see them. Viewers dutifully sit, letting these aural mysteries wash over them, waiting for a fuller picture to emerge.
It never comes. Though “Miriam,” which had its New York premiere on Wednesday night, is housed in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s diminutive new Fishman Space, with spectators seated on four sides just steps away from the performance, it still requires its watchers to lean in. And even then things are murky, half-seen at best or glimpsed through the haze of lights shining back out at the audience. (Olivier Clausse designed the lighting and the object-heavy and industrial set, full of repurposed elements like yellow caution tape.)
For Ms. Chipaumire (pronounced chip-aw-MEE-ray), a Zimbabwean-born and New York-based artist who has long sought to complicate traditional and stereotypical images of African women, obfuscation as strategy is nothing new. There is often a sense in her dances of withholding. You can get glimpses of me, she seems to keep reminding the audience, but please don’t mistake these fragments for a graspable whole. This is an understandable strategy (and a common one for artists in this manic age), but it is also limiting. If the ground underneath you is always shifting and uncertain, you typically take smaller steps.
In “Miriam,” which is directed by Eric Ting and features live percussive and electronic music by the Cuban composer Omar Sosa, Ms. Chipaumire is joined by another enigmatic force, Okwui Okpokwasili, who functions as both interrogator and doppelgänger. Both women are striking, imposing figures, especially when decked out in tall platform boots and spiraling, fabric-festooned appendages. (Malika Mihoubi designed the accessories, Naoko Nagata the delicate yet roughly tailored shifts and skirts.) The performers push their bodies through deep squats, undulations and hunched, thrusting attacks, in a movement palette both oblique and aggressive.
Ms. Chipaumire begins buried under a pile of stones and a voluminous trash-bag-like cloak. She emerges slowly, with effort, as if simultaneously hatching and giving birth. She vocalizes with breathy screeches that veer between innocence and something more knowing, at times sexual; throaty chuckles and girlish laughs and spoken phrases that underline an awareness of an other’s gaze: “I should always remember to smile,” and “I am happy, I sing, I dance.”
Ms. Chipaumire might be the “I” in these declarations. So is the beloved South African singer Miriam Makeba, an activist known as Mama Africa — and so too is the Virgin Mary, whose name is related to the Hebrew Miriam. Ms. Chipaumire’s stirring vocalizations continue throughout the hour-long work, echoing Makeba’s gorgeous muscular use of her voice and veering into restive, guttural and even hostile territory.
This range of sounds is evocative yet never quite locatable. But when Christian prayers come in, or when Ms. Okpokwasili, wielding a megaphone, quotes Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on the “savage and superb” African lover of the European trader Kurtz, the audience is presented with an instantly identifiable and scathing critique. Here is the colonial view of Africa, thrumming with sexual exoticism, reflected back on itself to damning effect by an African woman.
Is it too identifiable to have power? It’s an interesting political question, particularly when art is the vehicle for these politics. For me, yes — I’m bored with it, and then I’m bored with, and troubled by, my boredom. What a thing to feel dismissive of!
But “Miriam,” with its absurdly dim lighting and pacing that rockets forward in strangled fits and starts, isn’t especially interested in seducing, or even in making nice. “Smile, smile, we calm,” Ms. Okpokwasili advises toward the end, breaking from the hypnotic, repetitive diagonal that she and Ms. Chipaumire had been traversing.
Ms. Chipaumire doesn’t smile. She doesn’t stop. She isn’t interested in being dismissed.
“Miriam” runs through Saturday at Fishman Space in BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, near Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100, bam.org