Exclusive Q&A: Dancer/Choreographer Nora Chipaumire


Zimbabwe-born dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire has joined forces with with exiled Chimurenga poet/musician Thomas Mapfumo and his band, The Blacks Unlimited to create a new multimedia performance that she explains is about “about loss, grief, displacement, trauma and a confrontation with those African brands that we have become complicit in selling, consuming and perpetuating.” lions will roar, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rains will break: gukurahundi premiered last night at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and will tour the United States through 2010.

Flavorpill: Upon beginning this work you said that working with Thomas was going to be “the most important and significant collaboration” you’ve ever done.

Nora Chipaumire: Thomas Mapfumo is Zimbabwe’s most significant artist and a childhood hero of mine. I’m a nervous wreck! I have to admit that. I’m frightened shitless to be around [The Blacks Unlimited], honestly — I have to meet their power and energy, the expectations I’ve placed on myself and everybody I’ve brought together for this project.

FP: Did you leave Zimbabwe before or after his exile?

NC: I left twenty years ago, and chose to stay because, as a female contemporary dancer, it would be much harder to be what I am there and make a living at it. Thomas has been here, not by choice, for about ten years.

FP: Has working with Urban Bush Women influenced how you construct movement?

NC: Yes and no. I have my own process. Even though Jawole Will Jo Zollar is a very significant mentor and friend, as an African I was always an outsider — my point of view is from outside the American experience. Jawole has been a magnificent teacher, though. I can call her at midnight, in tears, and say “Jawole, I’m scared! What am I supposed to do here?!” And she’ll say, “Take a breath, Nora.” My relationship with her is a real privilege and her advice has always been right on.

FP: Your other collaborators, are they from New York as well?

NC: No. My lighting designer is from France and I have two animators creating projections: Joelle Dietrick from Tallahassee and Romain Tardy, who is also French but lives in Brussels.

FP: An international project.

NC: Yes, which is something that I believe in — my generation is more inclined to think globally and spread out. I try to reach out to artists who are daring and take risks. Or who have nothing to lose, and just want to try something.

FP: You want gukuruhundi to be about “the benefits and limitations of living outside your native culture.” What things are on each side?

NC: I can’t manufacture the charge I get from breathing the energy [of Zimbabwe] every single day. But it’s a very dramatic place — living outside helps me look at it a little bit more quietly, more objectively. I also have the ability to make this work in America: most of the artists there want to be talking about the issues I am but they have to find ways to do it that don’t endanger their lives. There’s freedom here to figure it out, to address this thing we call Zimbabwe.

FP: So it’s more of a memory-mining operation.

NC: Yes, which is a very beautiful thing, even if it can be selective. But I also interact constantly with my family there and, of course, you can’t escape the news — there’s always something about Zimbabwe on the news.

FP: Do you get the same information from both sources?

NC: There’s a huge difference between simple truths and the “main attractions” media gravitates to. I’m interested in learning how to turn the gaze away from the violence and the starvation — it exists, but it’s not the entire picture. When I’m talking with other Zimbabweans, we’re cognizant of the fact that we’re surviving, and that’s extremely important to me. Over there is a safe place to have all the terrible things happen so we can live happily over here. It’s a strange part of human nature. But people are constantly going to Africa to do their research, you know [laughs], to mine the wealth of knowledge of life that is there. I do think a majority of Americans see Africa as some huge abyss of famine, strange diseases and wars and don’t consider that ordinary lives continue regardless.

FP: If people haven’t been it can remain an abstract — a negative one.

NC: There’s a perception from outside of, “Oh, why don’t they do something about it?” when they are — constantly! I want to pay homage to that, but it works both ways: people living outside the U.S. have an equally-inaccurate image of life here.

FP: The title of your show is a mouthful — who’s doing all of this roaring and flying and wrestling?

NC: The people who care are roaring about Zimbabwe! It’s also a reference to Thomas Mapfumo, who is called the Lion of Zimbabwe. My totem is a lion. And the swans, they’re the dancers, the artists, trying to create another idea and ideal. The rains are indicative of growth, cleansing and change.

Nora Chipaumire; photo by Mkrtich Malkhasyan, from the film Nora by Alla Kovgan and David Hinton.

FP: In addition to referencing the violent beginnings of the Mugabe regime.

NC: That’s true: gukuruhundi can refer to the present as well as the past, and we are playing with both, absolutely.

FP: Watching a bit of your rehearsal, your dancing was surprisingly celebratory. Not light, but it doesn’t feel like a lamentation or a eulogy.

NC: Well it shouldn’t, because Zimbabwe’s not dead! [Laughs] It may be down on it’s knees, but it’s not dead, you know? Change is happening, but it’s a process, the same as decolonization and independence were. I’m interested in showing the beauty of the Zimbabwean people and our love for life. We can’t just focus on the death and the dying — we’re a smart, elegant people with a ridiculous sense of humor. We love to dance, laugh, and make beautiful music.

FP: How is the dynamic between you and Thomas?

NC: Super. He’s a really generous man and, I have to say, fearless about this project. “Who? What? Dance? Okay, what kind of dance? Whatever, let’s do it.” [Laughs] It was so encouraging for a contemporary dancer like myself. I’ve always admired choreographers who are able to work with Philip Glass or whoever. Thomas is a superstar — much more important than I am. [Laughs]

FP: Working with him brings your goals closer.

NC: He’s not afraid to make a really good hook. What’s the shame in just dancing? Why does it have to be so abstract and obtuse that nobody gets the point, you know? I’m trying to lose some of that. You train in some school for contemporary dance and it just gets so heady and abstract. I’m trying to regain the emotional power, the sheer visceral and physical power that connects one human being to another, because if we can make that connection then we’re able to have a conversation.

FP: About the larger issues.

NC: That surround life! That surround capitalism, that surround Africa, fair trade, aid — we want a fair playing field, not aid and donations. We are not beggars, we are a productive people, full of pride. I’m taking down this perception of Africa as a continent of beggars, of people who cannot stand on their own two feet saying, “Send us food.”

FP: Which is difficult, given all the economic and political structures in place to perpetuate that.

NC: All brands exist to make someone money. A starving Africa is like Nike: it’s a brand that sells.

Main image: Nora Chipaumire; photo by Antoine Tempe.