Performances by two acclaimed dance artists visiting Miami this past weekend showed very different sides of the current modern dance spectrum. One, while flawed, was still compelling and intriguing. The other seemed a theatrical and aesthetic dead end.
The first was a solo performance by Zimbabwean dance theater artist Nora Chipaumire, whose sold out show, co-presented by the Miami Light Project and Miami-Dade College’s MDC Live!, brought the audience at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse to its feet Friday night. Much of Chipaumire’s power stems from her intensity and integrity as a performer. She’s a riveting figure, a theatrical warrior, with a single topknot on her shaven head that focuses attention on her dramatically expressive face and fleshy, muscular limbs, stomping and prowling and transforming the stage into a freighted, separate universe that seemed to vibrate with feeling. “She has so many bodies in one body,” mused one watcher Friday.
Because of the way the New York based Chipaumire constructed the evening, however, the intense feeling in the three different pieces she performed seemed much the same. The first and third were excerpts; from Chimaurenga, in which Chipaumire distills her experience growing up in Zimbabwe’s violent struggle for liberation and her reaction to the subsequent flawed regime and critical, revisionist history; and from MIRIAM, a work-in-progress portrait of South African singer Miriam Makeba. In the middle was Dark Swan, Chipaumire’s take on Fokine’s fluttery romantic ballet standby The Dying Swan.
Yet much of the movement for all three was very similar: Chipaumire bending low over deeply bent, softly stomping legs, or violently shuddering her torso; and simple, repeated patterns. She wore the same costume, a loose skirt and black top (which she took off for Swan), with minimal set – rocks ringing the stage, and two mirrors for MIRIAM.
In Chimaurenga she stalked warily, flung her arms out in defiant, what-chu-gonna-do gestures, stretched her face in a silent scream; and proclaimed “I’m a child of violence, trauma… resistence, revolution.” In Swan, the one complete and clearest segment of the evening, she mingled archetypal poses from the original solo that evoked its fragile, poignant character, with jangled, erotic and violent movement, as when she raised one arm alongside her face, wrist limp, then whirled her arms like an traditional African dancer desperately trying to take off.
The MIRIAM excerpt was the most inchoate and most difficult to relate to its subject; Chipaumire starts laden with sandbags (perhaps Makeba’s imagistic baggage as an international icon), stares and gestures fiercely at herself in a mirror (confronting her image and herself?). But much of the rest of the movement and patterns are the same as in Chimaurenga, and – especially with an excerpt from an unfinished piece – it’s unclear what character or sense of Makeba Chipaumire is trying to evoke. Chipaumire’s passion and distinctiveness as a performer, compelling as they are, can be so strong that they overshadow the subjects she is portraying.
Some of Chipaumire’s passion and theatricality would have been welcome in Tool is Loot, an impenetrable and tedious work by Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, presented by Tigertail Productions at the Colony Theater on Saturday evening. Cardona and Lacey have had their work presented by major venues in the United States and Europe. Tool is Loot seems representative of a strong strain in contemporary dance where concept outweighs the experience of the performance, or the craft and quality of the dancing and movement. Except that if you can’t understand the concept through the performance, and when that performance is as numbing and devoid of compelling or even interesting experience as Tool, that doesn’t leave much.
According to press materials, Tool is Loot (one spelled backward is the other, get it?) was constructed as two “empty” solos, which were made “available” to non dancers such as an architect of a sommelier. What this means, or how the process shaped what Cardona and Lacey do onstage, is completely unclear. On a bare stage with wings pulled back to reveal the theater walls (required in this kind of work, because what we’re watching is “real”, not theatrical), they performed to recorded voices describing objects or telling a story about an erotic encounter in a garden, plus a score of random instrumental and other sounds. Sometimes Lacey’s movement mimics the description, i.e. torso snaking for “the object is snakelike”. Cardona thrashes, does vaguely vaudevillian, comic sequences. They simulate masturbation with a chair several times.