As part of its “Moved” dance series, Duke Performances opened on Friday a two-night run in Reynolds Theater of an hour-long dance work by Zimbabwean artist Nora Chipaumire. This singular work with a very long title was performed to a sound score by fellow Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo and his band Blacks Unlimited, who played the music on the stage, while Chipaumire and dancer Souleymane Badolo moved around them.
lions will roar, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rains will break: gukurahundhi is both mesmerizing and monotonous, its magic coming as much from lighting and video as from dance or music. The musicians are seated in a line stage left and midway back in the dimly lit space. Around them small lights cluster on the ground — it is as if they are playing around a fire, or as if they themselves are the fire the dancers circle. They are behind a sheer scrim at the proscenium, and that scrim acts as a screen for video projections, which seem to rush toward the audience. At first the passing clouds, the shifting shadows, the waving foliage of the projections are very beautiful; soon they become oppressive, an onslaught of rushing imagery. When the images changed to those of architecture, I had hard work suppressing a panicked urge to flee the theater. Perhaps this was meant to happen. Near the end of this image prologue came pictures that appeared to represent the white leaders of the former Rhodesia, which flipped to pictures of blacks in the post-colonial Zimbabwe. Apparently the new bosses share certain traits with the old — Thomas Mapfumo is known as “the Lion of Zimbabwe,” but his music is banned there by the current government, and he lives in political exile in the US. Chipaumire, who is also associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women, has worked in the US since 2005.
Chipaumire and Badolo appear behind the scrim, the images flowing over them. They stand still; they walk about; they circle the dancers. Chipaumire comes downstage and gives a little introduction and “welcome” to Zimbabwe in a scathing tone. (“Today’s inflation rate is one billion percent.”) If any of this information is acted on in the dance, it was too obscure for me catch — although it is quite possible that I simply don’t have adequate cultural knowledge to interpret the dancing. Waves of power and intelligence emanate from Chipaumire, yet I found her dance vocabulary mostly undecipherable and her choreography limited in interest, with more repetition than variation.
The quality of her movement, however, is ravishing. She is a powerfully built woman, magnificent in stillness and wondrously liquid in motion. Her head, which is shaved except for an upstanding ridge of hair along the centerline from front to back (very like that of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, or lion hound, bred from native dogs and those imported by white colonists), has a beautiful full curvature echoed by her shoulders and buttocks. Her arms and legs, feet and hands, are all long and sleek. Her choreography and style of moving show these visual elements to great advantage. Perhaps the most powerful scene has her stride into a patch of light where lies Badolo, who has danced there in an orange skirt. He now rests inert, possibly dead, the musculature of his dark back gleaming like a moonlit landscape. She lifts him upright, supports him with her shoulder and head, then dances him slowly around as if in a ballroom. But there is nothing frivolous and gay here. Her very body commands him to live — and to live is to dance. She infuses him with her life-force, until his head lifts and life sparks again in all his limbs.
There is about 20 minutes of bliss out of the 60 for the viewer in this dance. In baseball batting, that would count as a very good performance. lions will roar… is good enough that I’m already studying up on Zimbabwe, so as to be ready next time Chipaumire comes around.
The program repeats Feb. 27. See our calendar for details.