Although I’d heard about choreographer/dancer and 2011 USA Ford Fellow Nora Chipaumire for several years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I saw her perform for myself. It was at Bytom, Poland’s XIII Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference and Performance Festival. Nora’s master classes in modern and African dance created a buzz among both the students and her fellow teachers, and the solos I saw her perform were transfixing. Both works—Convoys, Curfews, and Roadblocks and Dark Swan—demonstrated not just her physical prowess, but also an intriguing intellect. These will be presented as part of her evenings of performance at the Skirball this weekend.
Nora will also give a sneak preview of a substantial excerpt-in-progress from her latest solo work, Miriam, which employs the music of Miriam Makeba (1932–2008). Widely known by her nickname, “Mama Afrika,” Makeba was an exiled South African musician who brought the realities of apartheid into the living rooms of music fans around the world. While Miriam examines the burden of representing a culture to a larger society, it’s not meant to be a biography of Makeba. Instead, it draws inspiration from Makeba’s life story, as well as from Chipaumire’s own experiences as a self-exiled Zimbabwean.
When I saw Nora in Bytom, I knew that the Skirball could be a good place for her to make her L.A. debut and share her vision of justice, equality, and feminine power. But I was intent on presenting her in the right context. Women Hold Up Half the Sky afforded the opportunity. Nora’s work stresses that Africans—and African women in particular—are not victims, but hold their own destiny and salvation. She has said that her works are meant as propaganda to move people to action—in her words, “unapologetic agitations for human rights”—and this comes forth brilliantly forward on stage. In many ways, her choreography embodies the spirit of hope and the urgency for change expressed in the exhibition, and I am certain that audiences will feel uplifted.