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Defiance and Strength

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, New performance, Uncategorized, World dance by lisatraiger on April 9, 2013

Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 4-5, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

Kettly Noel of Mali and Nelisiwe Xaba of South Africa in their "Correspondances"

Kettly Noel of Mali and Nelisiwe Xaba of South Africa in their “Correspondances”

There’s nothing subtle or understated about the eight women who comprise “Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance & Theater by Women from Africa,” two programs that made the rounds of the U.S. on a tour produced by MAPP International this past fall. The two-night stop at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater proved exhilarating, enlightening, entertaining and frustrating – sometimes at various moments, other times all at once. What these programs were not were forgettable. The comic duo Kettly Noel and Nelisiwe Xaba, from Mali by way of Haiti and South Africa, respectively, makes dagger-like satire of female obsessions with fashion, male-female relationships, power and individuality. What initially appears to be a light-hearted romp about appearances transforms into something far meatier. Slim, chic, turbaned Noel begins Correspondances with her morning ablutions: surveying a closet of dresses and interchangeable black stiletto heels, checking her lipstick, peering critically into a mirror. Xaba enters from the audience, dragging a battered suitcase behind her. She, too, changes her shoes and outfit. They circle each other, warily sizing up the competition. Later, one manipulates a marionette and states, “I am a woman, fragile but strong inside.”

The two relate what money can by: diamonds, petrol, couture, power – unspoken, but not overlooked is the insinuation that they have none of those material goods. Finally, both strip to leotards, Noel calling out in her native French lists of ballet terms, which Xaba furiously tries to execute, undercutting the rarified vocabulary created by royalty into a mishmash of crudely and comically executed steps. The piece ends in a riot of spilled milk. As the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” pulses, the two pull on udder-like containers of milk dropped down from the rafters. Correspondances is a messy, uninhibited navigation of the many landmines women – especially African women, they seem to suggest — face – from appearances to the strictures of expectations to serve others to their own desire to assert power in the still male-dominant culture. That they accomplish their task with droll humor makes it all the more engaging.

There was nothing playful about Quartiers Libres by Ivory Coast’s Nadia Beugre. The work is a bold indictment of Western culture, power, and politics – as powerful and unrelenting as Correspondances was fun and goofy. Performed before a shimmering curtain of empty plastic water bottles, designed by Laurent Bourgeios, Beugre, too, breaks the fourth wall. Entering from a seat in the audience, she carries a microphone, whose cord is draped around her, first like a necklace, later, though, it become a noose. There, after singing and meandering, she finds herself in row C near the stage, where she stares down a woman. After moments of silence the onlooker (a plant?) acquiesces and removes the cord, releasing Beugre’s shackles. But the dancer remains bound, in her silver sling-backs and skin-tight dress, which she wears uncomfortably.

After stripping away her costume to gain a semblance of physical freedom on stage later she squeezes herself into a suit made from more water bottles – becoming a prickly, 21st century porcupine – one with an environmental subtext about overuse of plastic bottles. Finally, Beugre gazes unforgivingly at the audience, brusque, eyes narrowed, confrontational, she stands there. Then she crumples and shoves large black plastic garbage bags into her mouth, her cheeks inflating like a chipmunk’s. From the audience as this continues incessantly: occasional giggles of discomfort. The air is tense, charged – will she suffocate? gag? when will she stop? – and, finally, after an interminable wait, she pulls them out then stands, spent. For her bow, Beugre remains defiant, piercing the air with a peace sign. The work hearkens back to both that of politically confrontational performance artists like Holly Hughes and Karen Finley in its bold and unvarnished approach as well as to the post-modernists a generation before them. Interestingly, both pieces feature high heels as an expression of women’s captivity and powerlessness – the stiletto is the new 21st century pointe shoe, perhaps.

Maria Helena Pinto of Mozambique in her "Sombra"

Maria Helena Pinto of Mozambique in her “Sombra”

Maria Helena Pinto from Mozambique is also defiant, dancing the entirety of Sombra with a bucket on her head, a bold metaphor asserting unequivocally her right to be seen and heard. To a voiceover in French and Portuguese, she navigates a row of upturned buckets, teetering atop them as if walking a tightrope. She straps on a baby carrier, swaying her hips at one point, unleashing a momentary tango at another. Weaving through buckets hanging from the ceiling with no visual cues, Pinto seems invincible, conquering adversity blindly her head trapped in that bucket yet taking each step boldly. Then the fury unleashes, she scatters buckets everywhere, flinging the one from her head. Finally, free we hear, in French, her last plea: “Give me light, look at my face, enlighten me.”

Morocco’s Bouchra Ouizguen brought the raucous and freewheeling Madame Plaza set on four ample women of a certain age, who first appear reclining on divans, staring and languidly shifting positions. More matronly than dancerly, with bellies and full backsides, flabby arms and double chins, these women have little apparent technical dance training, but a lifetime of experiences filter through in their performance. This harem-like setting becomes a place of calm repose and of refuge, as well as a place to act out and fantasize about relationships. They uses their voices to chant – sometimes it’s a singsong melodic phrase, or a vocal alarm, other times it becomes laughter.

They experiment rising, falling into the floor and rolling, using their hefty weightedness to full effect. At one point one of the women dons a man’s jacket and fedora and a couple acts out a male-female scenario, but they emasculate the “man” who promenades one of the other women around, body to body, appearing at once intimate, entirely natural, and awkward. The piece meanders, time expanding, seeming to stand still, ultimately ending as it began, with the women seated on the divans. Madame Plaza is a reclamation of a woman-centric space as a place to be safe, nurtured, protected, and free to explore creativity and imagination away from the male gaze. Even with its naïve and outsider approach to choreography and structure, the piece is still a powerful reclamation of the female harem, not as a place of isolation and oppression, but as a way for women to congregate and create a community and assert their voices.

Each of these works provides a glimpse into the issues and problems that women across the continent of Africa may face. These women have an outlet: dance, which speaks provocatively and with uncanny directness. David Landes, a Harvard University professor and author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, notes, “To deny women is to deprive a country of labor and talent ….[and] to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men.” These women have asserted their voices.

That dance serves as their means of exploration and expression is not surprising. While each of their works speaks through modalities of modern, post-modern and contemporary dance, the issues they struggle with are age-old. Although some of their methods might seem naïve or old-fashioned (in the 20th-century sense) to jaded American dance goers, promoting democracy and equality for all remains constant

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012-13 issue of Ballet Review, p. 9. To subscribe to Ballet Review, send a check ($27 for one year, $47 for two years) to: Ballet Review Subscriptions, 37 W. 12th St., #7J, New York, NY 10011.

(c) Lisa Traiger, 2012