Nora Chipaumire Brings the Complicated Life and Music of Miriam Makeba to Life on Stage

By George Fishman, artburstmiami.com

People have told choreographer Nora Chipaumire that they found her dance-theater performance Miriam too dark. "It's so black," they complained. "What am I looking at?" they asked about this performance based on the life and music of South African legend Miriam Makeba.

"At first, I was quite disturbed," Chipaumire says. Especially when some audience members used their phones to throw light on the stage. What those unwelcome lights illuminated is the complex story of a beloved singer/political activist, who showed an angelic face to the world while battling internal demons. In fact, Chipaumire interprets the burdens she bore literally.

Don't expect sprightliness when Chipaumire's opens her dance tribute this Friday. "I would call it a documentary. It is also an installation; it is theater; it is performance; it is dance."

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The audience's reaction used to bother Chipaumire. "But now I'm three years into it. It's an attempt to get us to use our other senses. We're accustomed to using our eyes, but what if I'm using darkness to show you what to see and not? You can hear a great many things, and what you're hearing should paint a picture."

And that picture is multi-faceted. Born in South Africa in 1932 and nicknamed "Mama Africa," Makeba was a Grammy Award-winning singer and the most prominent global spokesperson for the anti-apartheid movement for 30 years. She performed solo and with dozens of other famous entertainers -- among them Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon -- before countless adoring fans, including world leaders. But she suffered harsh public rebuffs and dealt with personal tragedies and a tumultuous marital history. These form the dark side of her story.

According to Miami Light Project's Rebekah Lengel, (co-presenter with MDC Live Arts), "the themes [Chipaumire] explores are very deep, and they're not easy themes and thoughts to have, but she does it in a way that's transformative and gives people the chance to look at themes of war and exile. And all her life story gets wrapped up in that, but it's not preached to you. It's told to you, and you get to explore it with her as she's performing it."

Most of Chipaumire's work has been solo, but for Miriam, she has engaged Okwui Okpokwasili, whom she calls "an actor who dances" to perform with her. 

 "Miriam -- the idea of her, what she represented -- could not be contained by one body," she says. And the two performers' differences of physique and movement amplify one another.

The production's sound design came first, but it's not the music Makeba is famous for. Chipaumire's musical partner, six-time Grammy nominee Omar Sosa, said he didn't like either Makeba's Afro-pop or world music to score the dance. "I was heartbroken," Chipaumire says. Makeba's music was a constant since Chipaumire's youth in Zimbabwe, but Sosa's rejection led them to rethink the sound and to focus on breath. "What we found was that her use of breath came from the medicine woman healing tradition, an animist tradition," Chipaumire says of Makeba's singing.

Sosa, who comes from a Santeria background in Cuba, grasped the potential, so the performers' breathing, which he recorded, became the first layer in developing the score. Their manipulation of the stage set -- consisting of rocks, water, wood, inner tubes, bottle caps and plastic sheeting -- provided clunks, drips and rustling sounds. Sosa recorded and added them to the mix.

"He switched on his Afro-futuristic mindset," says Chipaumire. They added southern African foot stomps, and percussive "face playing" (patting the face with cupped palms). "We went from Johannesburg to Cuba to Bach's Goldberg Variations. I determined to continue this query/dialog with Africa and Europe -- ululating Johannes Sebastian Bach."

Sosa also added his voice and masterful drumming. Okpokwasili contributed other vocalizations. In fact, this original sound score was nominated for a Bessie award.

 

Early on, Chipaumire identified both the biblical sister of Moses and the Virgin Mary (Miryam in Arabic) as exiled women who shared Makeba's name and her burdens of responsibility. Then there's her own identification as a southern African, living in exile and "representing" to those around her. "I thought, how do I convey the weight of expectations? So the physical language of the performance comes out of practically trying to think through what it feels like to be weighted down."

Practically weighted down -- as with rocks.

Weight is, of course, is the opposite of lightness, and lightness is associated with the classic ballet tradition in which ballerinas seem to float in the air. Don't look for that in Miriam. "The norm," she says, "is to use Western classical tradition as a standard, though I hope we're moving away from that to a more global standard. Women are so often these weird little creatures -- the butterflies."

Miami Light Project and MDC Live Arts brought Chipaumire to Miami in 2012 and 2013 for highly praised solo performances and professional workshops. According to Lengel, the emotional reaction to her performance was indicative of her power as a mover and the energy of the stories she was telling." Regarding this South Florida premiere, MDC Live Art's executive director Kathryn Garcia adds, "This is especially touching at this dawn of a post-Mandela era."

Chipaumire, while an advocate of "letting the art stand on its own" is also committed to dialogue. It's part of what first inspired her move to the U.S. So, after each performance there will be an opportunity for Q&A. "I live through my work and... I find solutions to issues I'm dealing with through my work too. Emerging, finding solutions for different questions and celebrating successes is part of what we do as humans. I happen to always work through my body and find answers that way."

Miriam will be performed Friday at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse at 8 p.m.; cost is $25 or $50 for VIP; visit miamilightproject.com or call 305.576.4350.

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