by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal | Photo credit Constance Mensh
As a part of The School for Temporary Liveness, which runs from September 25th to October 2nd, nora chipaumire brings three works to Philadelphia entitled #PUNK, 100%POP, and *N!GGA. Though the three works can each be seen individually throughout the duration of The School for Temporary Liveness, on Saturday the 28th all three could be seen in tandem with each other. With intermissions between each piece, the three combined ran from 8 pm to midnight and never once throughout that four-hour space of time was the audience subjected to a dull moment.
The evening begins with #PUNK. The audience is ushered into the gallery space at the Philadelphia Art Alliance where they’re met with a large structure of plywood and speakers, terraced like a mountain in the corner of the space. There is no seating, no chairs, no formal place for the audience to go. As the music begins to play, chipaumire and her collaborators descend into the crowd and begin the night’s performance.
Existing at the convergence of a choreo-poem, a house party, and a rallying call to action, the work consists of chipaumire and her partner (Kaolack) moving about the space reciting spoken word in tandem with movements, harsh and brash in tune with the blaring sound-score.
All this comes together in an expression of frustration and rage painted within the punk aesthetic and conveyed to the audience through the chaos and noise of the work’s moment to moment experience. Certainly, a non-traditional way to experience a performance, as it often became hard to see or even hear given all the elements competing for attention, there’s no denying its effectiveness in conveying its tone and theme despite that.
As the audience re-enters the space following a brief intermission they find the space transformed. The terraced plywood/speaker fixture has been rotated, revealing neon lighting attached to its backside. Two DJ tables built from chairs and other various odds and ends have also been set up within the space lending the whole affair a club-like vibe.
While #PUNK leaned more heavily on chipaumire’s vocals, 100%POP is far more about the experience of being in close proximity to those around you, as the accompaniment fights the vocals for dominance. Repetition is key here in establishing the themes present which largely seems to focus on the tension between “the revolution” and “the party”.
As a deconstruction of contemporary pop-party culture, this work succeeds in its ability to place the audience within the subject of its examination. Allowing them to feel the words spoken by chipaumire rather than merely hearing them. Again the chaotic nature of the free-form crowd and the loudness of the music often make it hard to focus on any one aspect of the performance, yet this is hardly a negative and only serves to enhance the work as a whole. There’s never a dull moment as you yourself become both a subject of the work and a part of the performance at the same time.
The final performance of the evening began after a longer intermission and was the only section which permitted that the audience sit. Unlike #PUNK and 100%POP, *N!GGA takes place in two separate rooms as well as within the hallway connecting them. In one room, the gallery space where the other two had taken place, chipaumire sits atop the speaker-structure and addresses the audience members sitting around its base. In the other room, Kaolack performs a variety of movement in response and conversation with chipaumire’s words.
This final performance is largely an examination, critique, and deconstruction of racial stereotypes. Both the spoken word and choreography carry a biting sarcasm, addressing the audience candidly and without a filter. The choreography often moved out of the other room and into the hallway where a good deal of the audience was gathered. This intrusion of the audience, breaking the traditional barrier between performer and observer, is somehow still startling even though the rest of the evening had established that those barriers did not exist within this performance. Overall it adds tension to the work, again marrying the movement to the vocals and allowing the themes to be felt rather than just heard.
This piece was accompanied by a live drummer (Austin Williamson), situated directly next to the audience. The pounding of the drums seems to shake the entire building as the tension within the work escalates, bringing the entire affair to a cacophonous apex. Then suddenly there is release, the lights come up, and the audience is invited back into the party. For fifteen unbroken minutes, the audience dances with chipaumire and Kaolack within the now lit space. This ending is shocking, not in the way much of the other material had been but more so in its contrast. Gone is the sarcasm, rage, and frustration and instead there seemed to be a release within the space. This catharsis is clearly felt by the audience as they joined in, dancing with smiles on their face until the piece reached its conclusion fifteen minutes later.
Though physically and mentally exhausting, these three pieces work in perfect tandem with each other and upon their climax are incredibly rewarding. They demand the audience engage, taking them out of their comfort zone and into the world of chipaumire’s performance. Every ounce of emotion is felt, even when it cannot be clearly seen or heard through the crowd. This is because the crowd itself is part of the work’s appeal and aesthetic. A mass of bodies connected in experience, moving with the music and joined in their observance of the work before them. In this, nora chipaumire’s work fits the role of enraged outcry and inspiring call to action simultaneously and achieves both to the highest degree.
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