Contemporary Dance and African Heritage

New work by Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire.

Friday night at St Marks Church in New York city, Danspace, in the context of Platform 2012 curated by Ishmael Houston- Jones, presented the powerful performances of two highly accomplished performers and Bessie award-winners: Okwui Okpokwasili, a second generation African American from the Bronx – her parents come from Nigeria – and the Zimbabwean Nora Chipaumire who lives now in the US.  Both have a long list of outstanding credentials but it was their performance that totally impressed me.  They each created and performed their own piece.

In Bronx Gothic, blending song, movement, and narration Okwui explored with a mix of provocation and humor the state of mind of a younger self, a teenage black girl discovering what sex is about.  Her long and lithe body set against a white draped backdrop shook and trembled continuously.  An internal earthquake seemed to be dictating her movements, and I found myself mesmerized by her amazingly long fingers and limbs jutting out erratically.

In The Last Heifer – heifer meaning young female cow, slut or fat cow etc – Nora Chipaumire presented herself to the contrary as eminently sculptural and powerful. She moved to the sound of traditional African music in slow motion through a sequence of  movements that repeated itself. Dressed in a Jean Paul Gautier like outfit, which exposed her breasts, she appeared in total control of every inch of her body asking us to take in each and every move. The tension was unbelievable.

As it was made clear after the show during a talk moderated by Wangechi Mutu, a renowned visual artist from Kenya,  Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire were both in each their unique way defying the strict rules of propriety dictated in their childhood home: one through the use of crude and explicit language and the other through the exposure of her breasts. However, it is their different experience with their African heritage that mostly informed their work and explained their different approach to the body in these two pieces. Okwui is perceived as African in New York and as American in Nigeria and she is keen to explore in her work the instability of that “in between” place.  By the way I can relate to that feeling since I am always a foreigner wherever I am. On the contrary, Nora is firmly grounded in her African identity having been raised and schooled in Zimbabwe. She is focused on issues of power and the political. She got that point across in a visceral way and I found myself rather hypnotized by her.   I always envy the confidence of the one who has such clear sense of identity and yet there is  a richness of potential in that indeterminate space which Okwui so poetically conveyed.

They are working together on a project commissioned by BAM for the fall and it promises to be fascinating. I am going for sure!

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