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Voices of Strength

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

New York Live Arts
September 18–19, 21–22, 2012
Performance reviewed:

Program A, Sept. 18

We humans—and especially those of us living in privileged nations—label things in order to act upon them, to control, to sell, and consume. With regard to those useful yet often troubling people, places, and things “over there” at a safe distance, our claim to the right to label can be critically strategic; it permits us to view and treat The Other as suits our current needs.

The African continent, virtually a map of labels imposed from outside, is home to three dancer/choreographers, recently presented at New York Live Arts, who subvert Western stereotypes of Africa, its women, and its art. They flip the script, appropriating non-African cultural artifacts and behavior and turning them to their own artistic and political ends. They demonstrate that African peoples have creative agency, are not frozen in time and are—for better or worse—active players in this world that we have all wrought.             

          
Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa), Kettly Noël (Haitian-born, living in Mali) and Nadia Beugré (Cote d’Ivoire) introduced two impressive works during Program A of the touring festival Voices of Strength: Contemporary Dance and Theater by Women from Africa, curated by Mapp International’s Cathy Zimmerman. None of these three women artists care to conform to American expectations, nor to any manner of theatrical reticence. They say yes to raucous humor, yes to glamour (in either their person or, in the case of Beugré, extravagant stage design), yes to repeatedly invading your space, yes to intimations of sexuality and undercurrents of violence.

 

 

Nelisiwe Xaba and Kettly Noël in Correspondances

 

Collaborating on Correspondances, Xaba and Noël depict affluent, ultra-stylish ladies whose notion of dance is as far from tribal tradition as you can imagine. For instance, they might take inspiration from rock videos, nailing the Eurythmic hit, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” with deceptively cute, gestural intensity. They interpret ballet terms like piqué with nearly lethal literalness. They ratchet up an initially chummy butt bump with bumper-car velocity. And they turn the ridiculous (two milk-filled, udder-shaped balloons descending to the dancers’ mouths) into the sublime (what if the sensual Vollmond had wet Bausch’s dancers not with water but milk?) and back to the ridiculous (bodies wildly slipping over a milk-slicked floor). And while these charismatic buddies make viewers chuckle, they sometimes chill the blood. In one segment, a reclining Xaba unfurls a gorgeous leg, raising and dangling a white-gowned, white-skinned doll that she appears to have impaled on her black stiletto heel. Later, as we listen to a Blossom Dearie recording of “Satin Doll,” Xaba looms over the pitiable marionette, “walking” its tiny feet and coolly manipulating it in what, for white people in the audience, cannot be a comfortable image.

 

 

Nelisiwe Xaba in Correspondances.

All photos by Ian Douglas, courtesy New York Live Arts.

 

Beugré's Quartiers Libres provokes more discomfort. Beugré, sitting among the audience, prettily sings the famed Swahili love song/lullaby “Malaika” (“Angel”). But all is not well. In short order, she launches a long, self-punishing journey in which the heavy microphone cable looped around her neck and chest will turn burdensome; its rubber clenched between her lips will distort her face. The audience must ponder whether the space this dancer inhabits is truly free, as the solo’s title suggests. Throughout her physically and emotionally difficult performance, we witness freedom continuously toggling on and off.

At times, Beugré seems energized, even fearsome. Yet she acts upon a stage decorated with a “waterfall” that, while shimmering like liquid silver, is actually an assemblage of trash—flattened plastic water bottles (brilliant work by set designer Laurent Bourgeois and lighting designer Christopher Kuhl). She will stuff a large trash bag into her mouth. She will dress herself in a “tutu” of plastic bottles and pluck them from her body like bloody arrows. In these commercial byproducts of natural resources, we recognize the deadly personal and global consequences of unbridled political and corporate power that seizes free space and destroys autonomy.

 

 

Above and pictured at top: Nadia Beugré in Quartiers Libres

 

Voices of Strength’s Program B, which I did not attend, features Madame Plaza, a work by Morocco’s Bouchra Ouizgen first brought to New York in 2010, and the US premiere of Sombra, a solo by Mozambique’s Maria Helena Pinto. More American viewers will have a chance to catch this exciting festival when it comes to Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, DC.


Voices of Strength continues at New York Live Arts through Sept. 22.