The Russian Feminist Collective Visits Portland
This is one of those TBA performances that will make you irritated and possessive with your time. Confusion, frustration, and disorientation: you’re apt to feel all of those. But that’s the point. Last night was the second and final run of the piece Miriam. I saw it Friday, and I’m still trying to make sense of it.
In short, it’s a difficult performance, and it’s good to have some background information (our print preview of the show will give you some clue). Zimbabwe-born choreographer Nora Chipaumire works with ideas of displacement, gender, and African identity. Also performing in the piece is dancer Okwui Okpokwasili, who was born to Nigerian parents but is Brooklyn-based. Miriam is booked as a dance, but it’s a lot more like theater—like Absurdist theater, or Dada theater, where there are a lot of indecipherable grunts and gasps (more so than actual sensible words).
We never see the performers’ faces in full; the lights are always low, or lit from above. The piece begins in darkness. We hear the sound of dripping water, and we see an illuminated jug of water suspended above the middle of the stage. We hear gasping from stage right. Soon we see a spotlight, which is attached to the head of a performer (Okpokwasili), she looks like a spelunker treading through a cave. As she glances around, the headlamp illuminates the different areas of the sparse stage.
There’s a big mound of rocks piled below the hanging jug. A rigid leg juts out from the rock pile. It looks like a dummy’s leg; It’s not. It’s the leg of Nora Chipaumire, who eventually emerges from the rocks, and so begins an intensely irritating and antagonistic relationship between the two dancers. Okpokwasili is perched on a ladder, with a megaphone, yelling directions at Chipaumire. She yells her orders in a stately, Katherine-Hepburn-y voice. “Thighs!” she commands. Then Chipaumire postures, and sticks her body out in compliance. It’s unsettling, malicious, and confronts the expectations and objectifications of a woman’s body (specifically, an African female's body).
Key phrases are threaded throughout the work. Chipaumire often mutters to herself, “Smile. Smile. I should always remember to smile.” Literary references ring throughout Miriam, e.g. text from the novel Bones, by Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove (“I love you, you are my margarine, my butter, my peanut butter for my heart”). Other references include the Heart of Darkness, namely, observations of an African woman from the text (“Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky”). Miriam is a piece that references journeys (see: Heart of Darkness), but that itself is comprised of staccato moments—there are no lyrical passages of fluid dance. Instead there is stomping, long-held poses, and moments of staring. The music is also diffuse, running the gamut of acid-like jazz, to traditional African rhythms.
Despite there being only two dancers on stage, Chipaumire and Okpokwasili never touch or connect in any physical way. (Occasionally, they will mirror each others’ movements, or they will move in unison.) This alone leaves you with a feeling of dread and unfulfillment. I walked away from Lincoln Hall with a sensation of having squinted hard in the dark, trying to make out a shape, with no results. However, perhaps a lack of a solution is a conclusion in itself. Or, if you listened to PICA’s artistic director Angela Mattox speak before Friday’s performance, maybe it's just the beginning of a conversation.
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