Around the Institute

“Becoming Invisible in Public” an interview with Nora Chipaumire

August 1, 2012  • ADS Works

Nora ChipaumireNora Chipaumire is at the forefront of contemporary dance. She is a 2008 New York Dance and Performance (aka “Bessie”) Award winner for her choreographic work Chimurenga; and a 2007 New York Dance and Performance Award in the performance category for her work with Urban Bush Women where she also served as Associate Artistic Director. Nora studied dance formally and informally in her native Zimbabwe, Senegal, USA, Cuba, and Jamaica. She is a graduate of the University of Zimbabwe’s School of Law and holds graduate degrees from Mills College of Oakland, CA in dance (MA) and choreography & performance (MFA). She is also a fellow at Anna Deavere Smith Works.

Ethan Philbrick (Anna Deavere Smith Works Curatorial Assistant) and Chipaumire recently sat down for a conversation about her work following her performance of The Last Heifer at Danspace in Manhattan. Check out the interview below:

Ethan Philbrick: I was thinking that we could start off with the artist statement that’s on your website. Could I ask you to read it out loud?

Nora Chipaumire: Okay. Here goes…“My goal is to move people to action. My work is about people. The work is total propaganda, unapologetic agitations for human rights”—that’s true—“my work is township. It is urban. It is now. It is not about that colonial, post-colonial, geo-political Africa. It is about the African people agitating for fair trade and not aid.”

It’s so interesting…the language is so within a time frame, you know…”revolution,” “propaganda…”

In a way, it’s….well, now I’m already talking…do you have a question?

E: No, no, no, keep going, keep going!

N: In a way, it seems that this language of revolution is such a reality for me. There’s still this thing. Right? And it’s still sort of real. And somehow, yeah, this language still rings true, although I’m also interested now in how…

…how can I find language that means the same thing, but doesn’t have the echoes of, you know, the Berlin Wall, DMZs, and stuff like this? Although those things…I also have this fear that somehow, as time is speeding past, people are totally forgetting that there was this other reality. You know?

E: Definitely. What do you mean when you say that “it is not about that colonial, post-colonial, geo-political Africa”?

N: Well you know, it seems like that’s how people, especially in academic settings, there is this academic sort of approach and people want to place it in this way of thinking—you know, like, “what’s the philosophy? It’s post-colonial”—and those are fantastic things, and they’re also true, it is the era, but in a way, they are such big subjects and they lessen the individual reality. To me they sort of take away from some of the grander achievements of ordinary people in townships, you know, who are negotiating this massive shift from the rural or traditional (but not rejecting their tradition), into this urban, technological, tweeting and texting sort of place. There’s a lot of innovation there that gets swept under the carpet when we just focus on this huge colonial narrative. In a way, that’s the thing…what’s the language to get away from the master-servant, colonial-colonized? I’m less and less interested in that sort of dialogue. If you just focus on what’s happening, the material there is so alive and also so empowering. How do you take back the power and come away…step away from being the victim. So I think some of this post-colonial academic language has this sort of, “oh the poor African, the victim.” It’s just endless, and yet, it’s like, that’s not how I want to feel and that’s not how I feel and that’s not what I see when I see all these interesting art works that are made out of wire, out of plastic, out of things that are cheap, attainable, accessible. People are really being creative. How they survive is totally creative.

E: I think we may pick back up on these things later, but I’ll jump into another broad question now. As we are talking about language…for you, what is the relationship between language and movement, the word and the body?

N: The body is capable of expressing so much. It’s not just because I dance, but it may have a lot to do with the culture that I come from where there are such codes of comportment, especially for women. So you always know how to organize your body and you’re taught this from the very beginning, and that speaks volume. So I have this sort of love for that too, that organization of the body, and what it says and how people who are in my specific culture understand it. If you walk a certain way, and sit a certain way, and shift a certain way—it has meaning. It has nothing to do with words. Or they are words that are unsaid. It’s interesting…how to constantly be finessing the vocabulary of the non-spoken thing, because also then it helps me as a choreography and dancer. But it’s interesting living and working in the “West” and having this grounding in this other culture and trying to negotiate—who am I speaking to? Who am I trying to be in dialogue with? How can I use what’s from there and what’s happening here, physically? It’s fascinating to me…

E: When I was reading your artist statement from your website, the first phrase: “my goal is to move people to action,” reads to me as an articulation of your approach to spectatorship. How do you conceptualize audiences or spectators as you go about making a piece?

N: That’s a good one. I do think that I don’t consider the audience at first because I’m working alone in a studio and I’m just trying to find language—what does this mean? Is it clear to me? So once it starts being clear to me, then there’s the engagement with a space. There are all these different levels. The language, the vocabulary, needs to be strung together, there’s this physical thing, then there’s another physical thing with space. So once it starts to get away from my very sort of navel-gazing-with-the-body-thing, and into the space-thing, then I start to be aware of orientation in the space—is this warm? Cold? Proximity? Intimacy? Is it distant? Where are people sitting? I have two things that I always work with. One is that, dancing alone primarily, I always place people in the space with me. I populate the space, you know, like with my grandmother, or my mother, or my brother, my sisters. These people are who I am talking to. It’s sort of my way of dealing with…you know…I’m making this work for me, and looking towards Africa, but I’m not performing there, so I place these people in the space. And then there’s also this other outer circle, which is the actual audience which is sitting there. So there’s an intimate audience that I see in my mind’s eye and I’m talking to, and working with, and negotiating with, and then there’s this other audience. This other audience, I feel a little hostile to. There’s a bit of a hostility that I think is helpful for me, because I don’t really trust these people, I don’t know these people, I don’t know what they’re bringing, how they’re going to take me. I want to press enough buttons so that they’re not asleep, so that in a way, I guess that’s what I mean by “move them to action”—even if it’s just thinking about something, or looking up a certain idea or something, to me that’s enough action, rather than “oh that was nice, what’s next” and totally forgetting that they ever saw your performance. But I do think in general that I find Western audiences hostile, because the general culture is to stand back and applaud at the end and not really engage. I mean I’m sure people are engaging, but not in the same way that say, an African audience would be physically there. I mean I guess Western audiences at sporting events…but that’s a kind of spectatorship that I would really love to have, where people are so engaged with it that everything is at stake for them, so they’re going to push you, challenge you, prod you, dance with you, you know? But in the concert setting, because it’s an elite kind of thing, you go, you sit, then you applaud and say “that was very nice.” So I guess in a way, I’m interested in agitating that space too, and bringing a township edge to that space. In the township, people will talk to you, and that’s really kinetic right? It’s alive. It’s almost like comedians…they know when it’s working, when it’s not. It’s a constant exchange, it’s alive. I don’t know. I’m so interested in that edgy place where it’s alive, where it could fail, where it could succeed, and you know it.

E: I want to talk to you about your recent piece, The Last Heifer, which premiered at Danspace as part of Ishmael Houston-Jones’s Platform 2012: Parallels in March 2012, a series dedicated to exploring the limits of what constitutes black dance. In the program notes for the piece, you include a list of influences for the piece that ends with the phrase, “and as always the Venus Hottentot, Sara Baartman.”   Perhaps we can take up the question of the solo performer on stage, and the politics of solo performance, especially for a black woman. I actually didn’t read the program notes until after I had seen the piece…

N: Perfect!

E: …ha, yes, I try…but when I read them and thought back to the performance, I thought, yes, okay, your use of the platform—this wooden, raised platform—and the atmosphere of the piece, clearly evoked the history and politics of display and being displayed, especially when it comes to black femininity and traumatic legacies of coerced display. But I think the piece is also about rewriting those politics and ripping them apart. How do you engage with that performance history and how are you working with and against it?

N: Well you know, it’s like, how do I get away from an expectation? But the expectation, assumption, or stereotype is sometimes really powerful too. You know, yeah, playing the victim can be a way to lure people into a certain place and then you get them there and, WHACK, it’s really not what you thought it was going to be. So I feel the same way about these influences and this idea about the solo. There is a vulnerability that I think is always, always the primary reason for doing solo performance. You’re so vulnerable, you’re so exposed. It’s you and your many, many gods. There’s just nothing else to look at, you know? The Hottentot was this woman, yes she had some handlers, she had some pretty crazy handlers, but it was just her and her body on display and there’s been now a lot of interesting research about who she was and what she was doing. I suspect that Sara Baartman and Josephine Baker, these women had a good hand in knowing how to manipulate their bodies and the expectation of this savage. And I’m also always playing with this notion that I’m a black African woman and there are all sorts of assumptions about what that means…

E: Yeah, and how you’re going to dance and how you’re going to perform…

N: Exactly. So I take that as a given and it’s a wonderful given, you know, it’s like playing Bach. People have ideas about what that is, and then you walk in and you do something else. The world has an opinion about what an African woman looks like and how she’s supposed to move, and I use those assumptions. Because those assumptions will probably never die out, they will just never die out. The Hottentot probably goes back to Adam and Eve—the woman being the seducer, the provocateur, she will take you to these dark places, and Africa is this “dark” place, and darkness, woman, darkness. It’s like this black hole you keep getting sucked into. So I think those are such rich places for me to continue to investigate, because I guess we do need the boogeyman, we need to have some primitive other, and I know that people are looking at me as a primitive other and so that’s interesting— how can I take that assumption and turn it around. It’s not really what you’re looking at, there’s something else going on, and if you’re smart enough, you will see that you’ve been taken down a different path from what you expected. I don’t know if I answered your question, but I think the Venus Hottentot has been done a great injustice because we want to make her simple, we want to make her the victim, but she was a grown ass woman when she left South Africa and she left on her own free will, and things did shift and fall apart once she got over seas, but she wasn’t sold into slavery. She had some kind of agency which she was also negotiating, so I’m interested in that too. She was complicit in a lot of what was happening to her, as I am complicit in the work that I’m doing, you know, I can’t say someone has made me do it…I’m doing it and you know, I don’t need aid, I just need a fair space, I just need an equal space.

E: In your recent performance, you began the piece by slowly walking through the audience from behind, directing a hostile gaze down at the seated members of the audience. In terms of the expectations of the dancing African body as always virtuosic, vital, fun, fast, celebratory…

N: the life force!

E:…yes, the embodiment of a life force bubbling over with energy! Against these stereotypical expectations of the dancing African body, your piece felt like a fantastic exploration of intense slowness—an incredible distillation of movement, a slow repetition. Can you talk a bit about this slowness, what draws you to exploring slowness at this moment?

N: I’m interested more and more in the virtuosity of stillness. People take it for granted because it seems so simple, and yet it is really difficult. It’s difficult to sustain that fragile state of not moving too much. It allows me to go inside and to see the interior space. Less about the exterior space, which I’ve already described as “I’m here for your consumption.” But am I really? Because then I start to go inside. You know, so yes, my breasts are out in The Last Heifer, so there’s sort of an exhibitionism—you can consume me in this way, but I’m not going to make it too easy, because I am not your co-conspirator in this consumption. Something else is going on—maybe there is some other space, the slowness, an attempt to become invisible. I think that’s what I’m trying to go for—how to become invisible in public. My body is moving but I am sort of receding and going into this other interior space which I think has a lot of potential for exploration.

E: And I think there are political implications to this work, especially in terms of thinking about how there has historically been an expectation for certain bodies, especially bodies of color, to be hyper-visible…

N: Yes, I think the black body has this hyper-visibility. The black dancing body has all this history…you know, like, “Dance! Dance! Dance!”…then to stand there, in my piece, and not do that expectation…but I think there is a vitality or virtuosity in my piece that is easy to ignore, it’s the reverse of the vigorous, jumping, dancing African with the drums, so it’s easy to not see the virtuosity in the stillness. I’ve always been intrigued by the power of stillness, especially within Asian performance traditions, and that you start, in that stillness, to see so much detail.

E: For me, in that stillness with The Last Heifer, one of the details that started taking on a life of its own was your sweat. As you repeated that intensely slow phrase, pausing in deep stillness, your sweat started to collect and drip off your face. It became a dancer in its own right. So perhaps we can take sweat as a jumping off point. Sweat as a by-product of bodily effort, of labor, of challenge, of work. How do you approach sweat?

N: Yeah, I think about sweat as a taboo bodily fluid. You’re not supposed to show effort. I like the “Western” concert stage because it’s about privilege and power. It’s the elite—only the aristocrats can be in this space. These people are not supposed to show effort, they’re supposed to always show grandeur and elegance, and only the peasants sweat and huff and puff. Which in a way is exactly what the beginning modern dancers in American and Germany were working against—dance as an aristocratic sort of space. Graham and Duncan—showing effort. The dancer’s work became effort-full. I’m interested in this—putting so much stress on the body. But then you also make it pretty, and that’s where it starts to disintegrate. In my piece—here I am in this nice looking light, in this nice looking costume, on this nice looking platter—it’s supposed to be pretty, but then it starts to not get pretty, and you start to notice that it’s work, “should I be enjoying this? Is she killing herself? Is she gonna die?” So in a way I’m interested in that—showing the bodily fluids, showing the work. The endurance—the human potential for endurance. I think we can endure so much. So in a way it also comes back to me because for the black woman, she is supposed to endure so much. That’s another trope, “Oh the African woman, she endures. Oh God, she endures.” So there’s a little bit of that too.

E: I want to ask about the law, because I know that you went through law school in Zimbabwe. I think there’s an initial reaction to this trajectory that goes something like, “Whoa, law school, that’s so different than being a dancer and choreographer,” but I think that I’m more interested in thinking about how the law and choreography are perhaps more similar. What happens if we think of them as perhaps similar (and yet extremely different) ways of moving bodies, controlling bodies, affecting bodies, and being moved? How do the law and choreography resonate for you?

N: Yeah, I think it’s clearer and clearer to me that they’re really the same thing. One uses words and reason, with the law you’re trying to appeal to reason—“you have to be reasonable, what is the reasonable standard.” With dance, I want to appeal to the opposite of reason—to the gasp—instead of having to ponder through the good, the bad, and the in-between, I’m interested in the thing that makes you want to jump up and respond. Both are legitimate ways to get at people. I have to strategize when I choreograph. It’s the politics of art, there is some deep thinking about what this means. How will this be read? The thing that gets at the heart, which I love about dance, is the honesty and the vulnerability. A warm human body, a live body, there, doing all this stuff, sweating…it gets at the heart. There’s just something about having a body present, looking at it going through these different shifts in time. I think that without fail, ultimately the physical presence will get at the heart. It’s very different than talking on the phone or writing an article. I think that’s what Kofi Annan is trying to do with his Syrian mission, but maybe he should send some dancers, because people respond to vulnerability. The law, when it’s good, is about agitating for people, for the better of humanity, which I think all art forms are also doing. So in the end, they’re both advocating for something, for the greater good.

Chipaumire will be performing her newest piece, Miriam, as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival in September:

A trailer for Miriam: