Solo Form: Nora Chipaumire

By Laura Elaine Ellis

January 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I WAIT IN GREAT ANTICIPATION for Nora Chipaumire’s homecoming… her San Francisco Bay Area premiere of Miriam at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum February 13-15, 2014. To witness Nora perform is to see pure energy, heart and soul on stage. I look forward to experiencing what Nora has created because she is never afraid to venture into new territory, to question, to challenge. That courageous spirit is at the core of what Nora brings to all that she does and that brought her to San Francisco, nearly fi fteen years ago. We spent many, many hours together in dance studios creating and rehearsing and burning up the stage performing with Dimensions Dance Theater and Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers. Nora danced in a variety of Bay Area projects, like my dance work Quilt Project: Pieces Of Me (2002), in works by Robert Moses and she shared the stage with artists like Robert Henry Johnson, Wayne Wallace and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. I was one of Nora’s sister/friend encouraging her, in those early years, when she was creating solo work, developing her choreographic voice and honing her craft. I loved viewing the impromptu showings she gave in that odd-shaped studio at Mills College in Oakland, seeing her gorgeous-self take up all the space of the Temescal Arts Center, and watching other folks be in awe of Nora when she performed in venues like ODC Theater’s Pilot Series, Summerfest’s West Wave Dance Festival, or the AfroSolo festival!

That same courageous spirit took Nora to New York City to dance with Urban Bush Women. While in New York, Nora continued creating her own solo projects – gaining national and international acclaim, winning awards, travelling and accepting prestigious residencies. In 2007, the first time Nora came back to San Francisco, Rob Bailis, then director of ODC Theater, commissioned Nora’s piece, Chimurenga. Nora captivated the audience; drew us in with the provocative storytelling in that work. In a review of Chimurenga, journalist Rachel Howard wrote: “I don’t think anyone breathed during the last twenty minutes of Chimurenga, Zimbabwe-born Nora Chipaumire’s one woman show. You could feel the audience grow rigid with suspense as her entrancingly roiling shoulders gave way to joyous African shakings and stompings, as she stood at the front of the stage shouting ugly epithets—“kaffir,” “woolie”—that slowly morphed into softly whispered remembrances—the smell of rain on sand, the taste of Mazowe orange juice. That last item brought knowing hisses of “yes” from the fellow Zimbabwe natives present at ODC Theater, a final burst of release. The standing ovation was immediate.”

Nora returns to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform Miriam, a dance-theater piece she created in collaboration with other amazing artists—composer Omar Sosa, lighting and visual designer Olivier Clausse and actor/dancer, Okwui Okpokwasili. YBCA Director of Performing Arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, wisely chose the YBCA Forum to present this unique work, which is described as “a deeply personal and immersive dance theater installation.” Nora has created a dance-theater work that challenges — she delved deep into the realm of risk-taking — daring the audience to come along. Nora Chipaumire, the choreographer/performer, is like Nora…the person: unique, bold, earthy, courageous, complex…REAL. Nora shared with me some of her thoughts about why she chooses to work in the “solo-form,” her inspiration for this dance-theater work, Miriam, and what it feels like to return to the Bay Area to perform:

Laura Elaine Ellis (LEE): You have been creating and performing powerful solo works for over 15 years now—why do you prefer solo work over creating works for a company of dancers?
Nora Chipaumire (NC): The life project of becoming subject; and not object …or having the choice between subject or object is why I make dances, why I dance my own work, why I am committed to the solo form. The solo form is to me the equivalent of self-portraiture and the self-portrait in of itself is never complete, it defies completeness, it refuses to be complete.
It is true that I prefer the solo form to “company work,” although in creating work on other bodies, I have discovered WORDS. The process of transmitting my thoughts onto another body encourages me to utilize the spoken language. This humbling process is necessary, perhaps as necessary as occasionally becoming a body or object in other choreographers’ works.

LEE: Not too long ago you and I were hanging out in New York and I saw you performing at a very cool event at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. It was interesting because you challenged yourself to experience another choreographer’s process and approach to developing movement. How challenging was that for you and did that experience impact or inform your work or artistic process?
NC: Naturally I view the process of working as a “body“ for other choreographers as a process of becoming object. A process of attempting to realize someone else’s portrait. I hope you can imagine the challenge objectifying process presents. I partake of it, because I often need the distance it provides me from my own self investigations. Though like fish to water, I must return to the environment that feeds me the most.

LEE: Miriam—like many of your works—is personal, yet relatable. What is the journey or story that frames/inspires this particular work?
NC: In Miriam, I was interested (as I am in all my work) in how I am personally implicated. Miriam was inspired by Miriam Makeba, Mary mother of Jesus, Miriam, the sister of Moses. Female Icons whom, taken together, represent the ideal woman; fearless, beautiful, talented…
The Mary(s) represent what I would like…what I wish for myself, that I believe every woman dreams… etc… etc…

LEE: Developing Miriam, you worked with a stellar group of collaborators. Share what it was like for you—a solo artist—creating in a collective?
NC: In building work such as Miriam, the contradictions of self-portraiture versus the collective communal existence become transparent. However, I believe the best of the two worlds were forced to unite…collide in the singularity of my vision, against the dynamism of the collective.

LEE: And our brother/friend Omar Sosa—we both know what an amazing person he is to work with—please share a bit about what he brought to the process?
NC: Omar, a singular artist brought curiosity, virtuosity and love to the work…as did Okwui (Okpokwasili) and Olivier (Clausse). I think the power dynamic, which I escape in working alone, is and creates an environment that is extremely charged. Questions of leadership, as well as bending to the will of the work, has to be considered. At the end of the day, I am taught new ways of hearing, seeing…shaping…which I bring back into my solitary practice of the solo.

LEE: So, you are performing Miriam—a San Francisco Bay Area premiere—at YBCA Forum, in association with the Black Choreographers Festival’s 10 year anniversary. What does it feel like- coming back to the Bay Area to perform this dance-theatre piece?
NC: The Bay Area is home…not dissimilar to the way Harare (Zimbabwe) is home to me. Both taught me lessons that are embodied in my work. Returning to the Bay Area is as mired with anxiety and joy as returning to Harare is. I would like to think that I have made those who raised me proud, at the same time I would like to think I have tried to surpass them. Acceptance and rejection, two sides of the same coin, make home an unsafe place. But clearly home is both a place and an idea that we all must return to…wrestle with.

LEE: Well, it would be great to see you develop a project here in San Francisco – through an extended residency…perhaps. I miss you girl…the Bay Area misses you! Could you see yourself having an extended stay in the Bay?
NC: A residency is as welcome as the visa to leave.

LEE: Yes! Indeed!!!

This article appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of In Dance.

laura elaine ellis, co-founder and director of the African & African American Performing Arts Coalition co-presents the Black Choreographers Festival with Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, founder and director of K*Star*Productions. The Black Choreographers Festival is an all-community event made possible by the generous support and involvement of many folks committed to its success and service.