You don’t watch Miriam by writer, choreographer, and dancer Nora Chipaumire so much as you experience it. This one-hour performance piece that explores light and dark and black and white, breaks most of the rules of staging theater. The music is often the two performers, Chipaumire and Okwui Okpokwasili, just grunting, yelling, or breathing, or the sounds of platform boots stomping. The lighting is turned as often on the audience as it is on the two performers and sometimes they dance in complete darkness. They march to Bach but stay frozen in the face of surreal, drum-heavy jazz by Omar Sosa who composed for the piece.
Chipaumire is from Zimbabwe but now lives in New York. She is a 2011 Artist Ford Fellow and a two-time New York Dance and Performance Awardee. For this performance she teams up with director Eric Ting. They make the bold choice to hold much of a dance in shadow and silence and to comment on many of the stereotypes of black people and women’s bodies through intense movement and a soundtrack of poetry, prayer, and readings from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.
Olivier Clausse designed both the set and the lighting, which was necessary since the set was made up of a lot of lights shining in every direction. The rest of it looked reclaimed from a junkyard and a garden. Stones pebble the stage amidst a ladder strewn with lights, a gallon milk jug that drips water into a metal drum and a mirror in one corner. Yellow caution tape ties everything together. Lucas Indelicato’s sound design is also an integral part of the set. A ceiling fan high above the stage blows through stiff plastic to sound like distant thunder. The dripping water is amplified and drip, drip, drips throughout the piece. Microphones are hidden in the set so the performers’ sounds are amplified at unexpected moments. Speakers are strewn throughout the audience, and as it is seating in the round, your senses are assaulted on all levels.
The costumes, by Malika Mihoubi, continue the theme of found objects. Simple dresses are covered with heavy bags, a wing-like projection of gauzy plastic, and a huge bustle, with those fabulous platform boots. They change costumes onstage and there are brief moments of nudity before they shred the mirror and dance in darkness again.
You know this is different when the first performer walks on wearing a headlamp. It is the only light. The reverse spotlight reveals the audience and nothing else, until it falls in the middle of the stage in a pile of stones and plastic and what I thought was a mannequin’s leg. But no, Chipaumire emerges from the trash, leg by leg. During the next piece, Okpokwasili has a megaphone and sits on the ladder and shouts out directions as she throws down cigarettes and Chipaumire dances to the orders.
She falls silent as a recorded reading from The Heart of Darkness begins with a long description of an African woman as Chipaumire works through that description. It’s a very powerful moment. An almost happy celebration begins when the music starts and the style of dance mimics an animal or a bird. It’s also very considered and careful. They spend minutes exploring just how their feet hit the ground or how one wrist circles. The mirror plays a large part; they dance on either side of it and into the audience, admiring or hating what they see. Many of the dances are also sexual – but not at all sexy – more it is a primal exploration of the body, both its violence and pleasure. The show culminates in an almost blackout again as Chipaumire wears much of the plastic to spin and spin and spin.
She says with this piece she wanted to explore OTHER, someone outside or foreign and says the darkness symbolizes incomprehension. And it is true – you are never allowed as an audience member to lose yourself in the performance as the lights are constantly revealing you as well as them or as you struggle to see the dance at all in the dim. It is unlike any experience of theater I’ve had and I mean my own experience of sitting in a theater watching a performance. Chipaumire expects more from you as an audience member than to forget yourself or the performer behind the role, but rather spotlights both…literally.
Miriam resists categorization or any kind of easy answer, but if you like your theater on the cutting edge, raw, and stripped to essentials, this is the piece to see.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission.
Miriam plays through April 6, 2013 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center – University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 405-ARTS (2787), or purchase them online.