Speaking Without Words: Voices of Strength at New York Live Arts

 In 2012, Archives, Best Of, Uncategorized

As part of a national tour, the mini-festival Voices of Strength presented the works of five female choreographers from Mali, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique, and Morocco. Saturday, September 22nd’s evening performance at New York Live Arts consisted of works from Mozambique’s Maria Helena Pinto and Morocco’s Bouchra Ouizguen.

In the evening’s second piece, Ms. Ouizguen’s Madame Plaza, the four performers entered the space and sat or reclined on three different long, rectangular cushions. They struck different poses slowly for a few minutes, and the stage remained somewhat dark.

This tension between hidden and revealed—the performers moving slowly, on display, while slightly obscured by the low lights—created a beginning that gave the audience time to take in the scene. I’ve become partial to slow beginnings—dance is so hard to really watch and see; it’s nice to have a few minutes to get settled. Even a still image, like a photograph or painting, is too much to fully take in; surely one can notice new details on each viewing. In dance, not only does the image move and change, but one can never see the same work twice. Only a film of a dance will be the same every time, and I consider film a step-removed from the live performance: the viewer must contend with the videographer’s choice of shots.

After a few minutes, one woman stood up and began walking and shaking her hand as her arms extended away from her body. This led to a flurry of movement from all four performers, including stomping and jumping.

The performers moved through different steps, outfits, and ways of contacting each other physically. There was a passage of running back and forth along a diagonal, there were some collisions, and at some point later in the piece, the long cushions were stood up vertically, becoming columns rather than seats. I didn’t find most of this particularly memorable. In fact, it’s safe to say that the more that happens in a dance, the more I forget. When I can’t distinguish a structure or don’t have any way of separating the events, the whole piece becomes a bit blurry.

The best part was when the performers started singing. I didn’t know until after the performance that Kabboura Aït Ben Hmad, Fatima Elhanna, and Naïma Sahmoud are all shikhat, or ‘aïta (meaning “cry” or “call”) vocalists. The choreographer encountered the three performers at a nightclub in Marrakech called Madame Plaza and began working with them on this project. At one point in the piece, all four rolled on the ground slowly, singing all the while, and eventually came together in a pile of bodies. The ending was a gradual gathering of the performers on the cushions, which were further downstage this time, and closer together. The last to sit down was Kabboura Aït Ben Hmad, as she alternated gestures toward the audience—a thumbs up and a gun-shaped hand, with corresponding sounds (of approval?).

As I watched the piece, I kept thinking that there was something inscrutable about it, not that I minded. It seemed like the performers shared something to which I was not privy—which must be true of nearly every performance piece. Despite all of the touching between performers, I didn’t think much about the relations between the dancers or really question them; they remained ambiguous. Or rather, this was not where the tension of the piece lay. I wasn’t sure of what was being called into question, however, or what was at stake.

Sombra was much more structurally transparent, with discrete sections. There was little written on it in the press packet, but then again, this was its U.S. premiere, and Madame Plaza had already been performed in New York. Also, I think the ‘aïta singers were an element of Ms. Ouizguen’s piece that needed or prompted contextualization, whereas in Maria Helena Pinto’s Sombra, no single element needed to be explained. The piece had fewer secrets, and its simplicity was effective and evocative.

Photo by Ian Douglas

The stage was set with 19 black plastic bins in a row upstage, one more centered slightly downstage of that row, and two more white bins by the lone black bin. Ms. Pinto entered with another black bin over her head, obscuring her face and neck. She stepped onto one of the black bins, and walked across each one in the row as a slow song played. (Lyrics to three of the songs used in the performance were included in the program—translations from Portuguese and French—and their connection to the movement material was evident.) Ms. Pinto eventually sat on the lone black bin, and put one foot in each white bin. She rotated on her seat, moving the white bins around the black one. After stepping out, Ms. Pinto upturned the bin on her head by putting her head on the ground and began a passage of rolling and tumbling around, holding the bin so that it remained over her face. It was clumsy and simple, and I felt that I could relate to this—a metaphorical feeling of tumbling around with my head in a bin. And at some point I thought, I hope she doesn’t take the bin off! I felt that it would spoil the piece. The choice to hide one’s face may distance the audience, but it also allows the audience to focus more fully on the action of the dance and brings them into the work.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, 15 more black bins descended from the ceiling, to hang by rope over the center of the stage. Ms. Pinto ran through these bins, disrupting their orderly row, and creating noise from the impact of her head-bin against the hanging bins. There was a bit of light emanating from each of these bins, which could be seen better when they descended even lower over the stage. She ran through them again, and their ropes became tangled. In clumps, the bins looked like sculptural works.

This practical, problem-solving aspect was satisfying—how many different things can one do with bins, upturned and downturned? Then beyond that, what meanings could arise from these uses? In theory, was there light in each of the bins? What secrets can be found in bins? Why white bins for the feet? Her choices could be read as solely aesthetic, or as both aesthetic and meaningful.

She eventually did take the bin off her head, and the dance became a bit more conventional, with large sweeping movements and turns. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because it was important for there to be some sort of revelation and disclosure. The bin didn’t fall off; she chose to remove the bin, and this seemed to have to do with some sort of agency or freedom. Ms. Pinto walked across the bins again, and the piece was over.

I love thinking about the different ways dances occupy time and space. I suppose every art form (and maybe even every human activity!) involves design of some sort. The combination of duration, three-dimensionality, and motion make the design of a dance particularly complicated, though. I often posit that my main interest is in the movements of the dancers’ bodies, but I’m finding lately that I pay more and more attention to the use of the space, including placement of the bodies and set elements.
The evening’s two pieces offered very different treatments of the stage space, but they were equally interesting in this respect. Ms. Ouizguen’s use of the cushions allowed the creation of an intimate space for a dance that occupied a limited portion of the stage. Ms. Pinto’s bins extended across the whole space, and her design had the look of an interactive art installation.

Photo by Ian Douglas

Some of the complexity of this dance work lies in the creation of an environment on stage (the visual aspect) in which the artist can work, play, and experiment with motion, action, and ways of relating to the audience. This combination of visual design and action is present in film as well, but I find the simultaneous presence of the performers and the audience in the same time and space particularly fascinating. Even if I’m confused about what is happening and why, as in Madame Plaza, the performers’ work before and during the performance suffices to engage me for the entirety of the event.

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