The fighters never make it past Round One in the high-stakes boxing match in which choreographer Nora Chipaumire made her debut in Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series, on Thursday. The bell rings frantically at times, and an exhausted fighter may sink wearily to the floor. Yet no one is knocked out and, significantly, there is no decision in this sweaty battle where manhood is the prize.
Chipaumire herself remains clearly undefeated, even nonplussed, as she swaggers through the ruckus onstage in “Portrait of myself as my father,” a dance-theater piece in which this Zimbabwean artist represents her father’s life as a bloody struggle with racism.
The choreographer’s father, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, died in 1980, but by brandishing a sign that says “Round One” the choreographer lets us know the fight has only begun. “Run, nigga!” someone yells provocatively; and one of the dancers, Pape Ibrahima N’diaye (aka Kaolack), tries desperately to flee, loudly pulling down the makeshift ring as he throws himself into the ropes.
But Nora Chipaumire isn’t running anywhere. Only once does she permit herself to make a strategic retreat, in a scene where the power goes out and we hear bursts of gunfire and bombs exploding. Standing on a chair that increases her naturally imposing stature, she wears a football player’s shoulder pads and gazes out imperiously. Her shadow towers on the screen behind her.
Perhaps the clearest sign of this artist’s courage is her willingness to laugh at the stereotypes that her piece recalls. “Ho, ho, oh, ho!” she exclaims with relish, when she isn’t growling like a lion or muttering in French. “Allez, ça bouge!” (“Now things are moving!”), she declares with satisfaction. It takes courage, too, for a woman to enter this particular ring, boldly claiming the right to wear her father’s mantle even while critiquing masculinity.
Although “Portrait” is a loving tribute to a man whom she barely knew, but whose troubles arouse her sympathy, Chipaumire isn’t above poking fun at male pretensions. The bare-chested Kaolack first appears lounging in his corner, a lamp aimed at his glittering crotch. When he rises, he may adopt a graceful, feminine stance, as well as hunkering down in fighting mode.
Chipaumire compliments him on his beauty, but she also taunts him. “Champion!” she says, “Show us your moves!” When he shrinks away from her, Chipaumire laughs and calls him “a pussy.”
The other man in this show, Shamar Watt, portrays the ringmaster, frantically dashing to-and-fro and hissing instructions that Chipaumire may or may not decide to heed.
Words are essential to this multi-faceted work, which Chipaumire defines by asking and then answering the telescoping question, “How do you become a man? A black man? A black, African man?” The dancing involves a few carefully chosen moves and gestures — Chipaumire skittering in place with small, rapid steps; Kaolack twisting his hips sharply and slapping himself, or stalking in slow motion. Though powerful, these characters seem half-frozen, and viewers may get the impression they are walking through a minefield, where any move they make could be misinterpreted or turned against them. The colonialists demanded that Africans renounce their swagger, Chipaumire tells us; and in a world where Africans must “earn the right to human dignity” only a few essential movements seem necessary to own.
As a pendant to this live premiere, Chipaumire offers the film “Afro Promo #1 Kinglady,” the latest production in Montclair’s “Dance for Film on Location” series, and a collaboration among Chipaumire, director of photography Benjamin Seth Wolf and editor Alla Kavgan. Here the question asked is “How do you become an African superhero?”, and the answer is obvious. Chipaumire enters a realm of luminosity and saturated color, blowing kisses through a round aperture that frames her beautiful face in close-up and surrounds it with a dazzling golden halo. Sweating alongside Watt in full-screen shots, she emphasizes fluid upper body moves; and as they prance in a tight corner, a patterned curtain billows gently in the background. Feet in winged sneakers swing back-and-forth like pendulums, running in a superhero Olympics.
The set-up couldn’t be simpler, but these artists transform it into a magical world.
“Portrait of myself as my father” is at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, April 15 at 7:30 p.m., April 16 at 8 p.m. and April 17 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.