by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal
Dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire in super-hero fight gear portraying the main event boxer at a boxing ring on the west side entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, wielding a silver microphone and hurling Showtime banter to immerse the audience in the atmospherics of the fight world. She swaggers, bobs, weaves and spars ala Mohammad Ali in all his heavyweight champ glory.
It is the first subversive punch she throws in “Portrait of Myself as My Father”, in the context of the fight world’s atmospherics of complicity and symbolically her examination of black male stereotypes vs. private truths. The combined effect is both highly theatrical and powerfully intimate. Chipaumire exposes the stacked socio-political arena her father had to contend with before his death in 1980. Chipaumire’s characterization is a dance “manifesto of my father” who she hauntingly reckons as having no “African futures.”
In the ring with Chipaumire is Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (Kaolack) is reclined in a studded jockstrap and leather belting, and outside the ring is Shamar Watt, the announcer who weaves in and out of the action. Chipaumire speaks in several African languages with some French, English and Portuguese laced in, similarly, she fuses African dance idioms with a punch-drunk mix of fight choreography.
Chipaumire circles the arena stating themes of pride ‘Black African’ ‘I Am a Black African Man’ – Black African’ Black Thunder’ ‘Midnight Black,’ and other identity queries as to what they really mean. In contention and on the ropes, is Chipaumire’s polemic about male identity and destructive stereotypes, which she exaggerates and vanquishes in stinging commentary- sanctified or condemning, cherished or reviled, lost or celebrated, swallowed or spit out.
Along with the continued narration, steel guitar and percussive orchestrals by Philip White blast in or fade to floor shaking rhythmic soundfields rumble that ignites hypnotic mise-en-scenes. The accumulation of the specter of her father is expressed in her solos for the artistry of Ndiaye, his precision and expressionism as he drops to deepest plies and spiders around the arena or torso tremors that bring a new meaning to core strength- is spellbinding. Watt is on the arena periphery in the first half, but joins in a hip-hop dance riff and at one point is in a WWE style mat slam downs and high jumps over the arena ropes, which was amazing considering the space.
Never far from the serious themes is the vainglorious glamour of fight culture ( or historic allusions to the Ali-Foreman ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’) is full of wit and comic irony. Watt gets so carried away with the sideline banter and Chipaumire deadpans ‘Will you shut up.”
As Chipaumire orates in a booming baritone, she flexes and poses with virile swagger and muscled grace, but just as suddenly she plays the ring beauty carrying the ‘Round 1’ placard. Later, she grabs her crotch and lets rip Michael Jackson’s signature soprano yelps. The gender fluidity continues with Ndiaye alternates menacing warrior dance moves with poses la femme and is both eloquent and pointed. Inspired moments as the trio end up detangling out of the arena ropes, or are tethered together in a tai chi adagio dance or float around under colorful umbrellas, surreally. There is a runway moment when they pose themselves for selfies and comment mocking about being in ‘African Vogue.’
But mostly, Chipaumire delves into the freighted racial themes, she pulls no punches in tearing into the absurdities and destructiveness of stereotypes of Black African men, Chipaumire mocks the universal slurs and salacious images, by underlining their ugliness with scathing satire. Hurling invective lines line “Run N……, run” and “You better run… and if you can’t run, you better ‘F…’. As she mockingly comments on the visage of Watt and Nydiaye knock down the boxing ring posts and start to hump them.
In the end with Nydiaye hoisted on her back in her final five minute oration as she asks “What does it really mean?” Through choreography and text, depicts those false images they are eclipsed the more powerful truths through text and movement. Chipaumire notes in the playbill that she builds a physical language so “an African body can be simultaneously avant-garde and a guardian of the ancient” as she carries forth her searing manifesto.
Performed at Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sept. 23 as part of FringeArts.
***Photo courtesy of FringeArts
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