Parallels writer-in-residence Carl Paris on Nora Chipaumire and Okwui Okpokwasili
March 29, 2012
Thoughts on Self-concept and the Black [African] Female Body
In one of its most compelling programs to date, Danspace Project’s PLATFORMS 2012: Parallels series presented exciting new solo works by Nora Chipaumire and Okwui Okpokwasili. To echo curator Ishmael Houston-Jones in his introduction on the evening of Thursday, March 15, “these daughters of Africa,” brought “vital new sensibilities” to the series’ aim to present past and current contemporary black choreographers who work within the postmodern dance mode. Indeed, Okpokwasili (a first generation American born of Nigerian parents) and Chipaumire (born in Zimbabwe) offered uniquely penetrating perspectives on the black female body.
Okpokwasili in collaboration with Director/Designer Peter Born, and nicely lit by Born and Carol Mullins, combines movement, spoken word, and songs (also written by Okpokwasili). Although there is little actual dance, the piece registers a particular kinesthetic identity that makes it feel like dance, starting with Okpokwasili’s long-limbed shaking body projected in shadowy profile against a white screen while gesticulating her arms to a spell-binding 5/4 African-percussion rhythm, mixed with the faint sound of voices. Additional items come into view as the lights fade up, like a lamp hanging from the ceiling with a piece of paper under it (which turns out to be a series of letters to her friend) and also a lit table lamp laid down horizontally, thus creating an intimate and fragmented atmosphere.
Mostly, Bronx Gothic is a fiercely personal sketch, which intertwines lyricism with intimations of fear, anger and frustration. Here, Okpokwasili uses explicit sexual language, like “dick,” “cum,” “pussy,” and other salty words, which might well have devolved into forgettable banality, but turned out to be both poignant and enlightening, thanks to her adroit injection of metaphor (like comparing an organism to rolling waves), her use of humor (like her twitching as a ruse against her mother’s queries about her sexual activities), and the irony of her not even being noticed by the boys while her friend winds up pregnant. But for these same qualities, the piece is also political. Okpokwasili’s shaking and gesticulating, Bronx-situated, tenderly-singing, defiant black female body invites us to ponder connections between her raw, locally-centered portrayal and broader notions of propriety and identity.
In preparation for Nora Chipaumire’s The Last Heifer, the audience seating was rearranged to create an all-around rectangular boxing arena atmosphere with a small platform in the middle where Chipaumire danced. Here, Chipaumire offers a very different perspective on the body, which the program note begins to explain:
heifer/hefar/Noun: A young female cow that has not borne a calf. Urban Dictionary. Insult. A prodigiously large female, usually from Kentucky. Fat. Cow. Bitch. Obese. Ugly. Heffer. Woman. Fat Cow. Pig. Porker. Slut. Whore. Chubby. Heffa. Hoe. Hog. Skank.
Here, Chipaumire uses her powerful body and intense artistic presence to turn these degrading associations on their head. She becomes the impenitent object of gaze, at once spiritual and sensual. She is the defiant “last heifer,” the proud warrior on display, something to be admired and appreciated, challenging dominant assumptions of femininity and beauty.
Chipaumire enters the dance space swaying proudly to traditional African music (which notably features cow-bell sounds and percussion). Her all-black costume, beautifully conceived by Naoko Nagata, is visually stunning, reminiscent of a matador, consisting of pants up to the middle line of her breasts (which depending on the angle of her movement, become fully exposed) and a jacket with an aggressive angular collar line. Likewise, the sides of her feet are painted black and so are her knuckles, which remained closed throughout the dance, perhaps symbolizing the cow’s hooves. Carol Mullins’ lighting was especially effective in bringing texture to the work.
But it was the unfolding of the dance itself that most impressed me. Combining a Zen-like quality with African-inflected articulations of the arms feet and torso, Chipaumire parades repeatedly around the tiny platform, adding minute details each time. Her movement is solid and deliberate. She never wavers or hesitates to suspend a foot in the air. She opens to powerful deep squats, meticulously articulating her shoulders, arms and head like a Maasai warrior. Increasingly she involves herself in the feeling of the movement, building to an almost possessed state.
I am most happy when I leave the theater not only entertained, but also moved and enlightened by what I have seen. Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic and Chipaumire’s The Last Heifer accomplished that. Each work was intelligently conceived and beautifully performed. In very different ways, they used the body to explore self-concept and identity.
Photos (c) Ian Douglas