Though the Zimbabwe- born dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire has been working and living in America for years, her native land, its people, and its politics are often central in her art. Her 2012 dance “Miriam” is, in part, an investigation of assumptions and stereotypes about Africa, as well as those of the female body. The piece considers contradictory expectations of women in general. In particular, it contemplates the South African musician and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba — whose death, in 2008, planted the seed for “Miriam” — and the Virgin Mary, whose name, in Hebrew, is also Miriam. Makeba was ultimately exiled from South Africa for 30 years, whereas Chipaumire chooses to live in what she calls self-exile. While she feels that the geographical separation helps her to better understand herself, she is also seeking to, as she said, “politicize” her situation: “I think it is vital to keep Zimbabwe always in the consciousness of people who care.”
The two Miriams are main threads in Chipaumire’s provocative, sometimes cryptic work of ritual and searching. The lighting design is purposely dim to the point of murky, and the set of found or repurposed objects scattered about the stage creates a world that is part crime scene, part bacchanal. Excerpts from various texts — shouted out or whispered through a megaphone by the other performer in the piece, Okwui Okpokwasili — is punctuated by Chipaumire’s vocalizations, which range from childish coos to hair-raising shrieks. Last week from California, Chipaumire spoke about the work, which comes to the Institute of Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday.
Q. “Miriam” was originally conceived and designed to be performed in the round. Why was this an important aspect of the piece’s overall design, and how will you approach the fact that the ICA stage cannot be reconfigured this way?
A. In the round, the audience is 2 feet away from the performance and therefore they are absolutely inside the psyche of the piece. That proximity can be a real experiential thing that you will then not have from the proscenium setting. But we do want the piece to be [performed] in Boston, and I do think the proscenium [enables] you to look at a piece and see all of the designs from a distance — so it has its own beauty for sure. I’ve performed at the ICA before; it provides me with an interesting advantage in that it’s a house of art. To be placed alongside the collections of the museum — even if only for a blink, even if only for a short time — it’s an exquisite honor for me.
Q. Because “Miriam” is so darkly lit, viewers cannot always see exactly what’s happening. Would you explain why you wanted this deliberate obscurity?
A. I’m interested in the audience-performer relationship: What are our responsibilities? I think my responsibility is to make a strong work. But what is your responsibility as the seer? When you’re in the dark, you’re not unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling — you have a kind of awareness. I want the audience to use everything to understand this work. In so doing, it helps bring the audience closer to understanding what it’s like to be in this exiled place, in this fault line, what it’s like to be living with uncertainties.
Q. Even so, do you weigh how much context an audience may need in order not to feel alienated?
A. I think with all of these “post-talks” and “pre-talks,” especially in dance, there is a certain sense that the audience is being overfed. It does us all such a disservice. There’s this nagging assumption that [audiences] don’t understand what [the artist] is saying. But what is it that makes you understand a painting? I’ve created this environment where there’s a lot of sensory stuff happening, where you are asked to feel, and feeling is fact. It is a way of knowing. I’m very comfortable in doing these small, chamber-like works that maybe are not easy to understand, but I’m working out certain issues, both for myself and for what is my place in the world. I would like for people to love the work, but I’m also happy if they come away having been provoked into “I don’t really love it, but I hadn’t thought about that,” and maybe the work grows on them.
Q. Why did you choose to live, as you call it, in “self-exile”?
A. I guess naively, I was looking for another way to understand myself, to give myself distance to see what it was I was dealing with. I think there is something in that condition of exile that allows for another [way of] thinking. You say to children, “Don’t touch the fire because you’re going to get burned,” but they only understand that when they’ve actually gotten burned. So I’m putting myself into the fire just so I can understand.
Q. Would you talk about some of the dualities that you’ve thought about or explored, within the two main “characters” in this piece, Miriam Makeba and the Virgin Mary?
A. Makeba had her own personal dilemmas. Many things happened to her that were completely devastating, and yet her public presence was always with this soft, sweet voice . . . so childlike, so innocent. That sweetness is an alluring, seductive thing — it is a power — and it seems to me that that is [something] that women are expected to carry all the time, and it is very like the sweetness that is perpetually that of the Virgin Mary. She is forever untouched, sweet, innocent. The ideals that the world wants of women — to be both mother and virgin — what a horrible contradiction! So I have questions about what does a woman really need to do to succeed? [Does she need] to inhabit those spaces of innocence? And yet, it seems to me that the world is not an innocent place.
Q. Your vocalizations throughout “Miriam” seem representative of those extremes, from ululations of joy to deep grunts that suggest an unearthly agony.
A. Why [shouldn’t] those deep guttural grunts of sheer terror, the darkness of it, be also available to women? I think that [to some people] I have always been perceived as somewhat masculine, and aggressive perhaps. I don’t know if it’s an “angry black woman” myth. I’m not angry at all! [Laughs.] I’m just — alive, and passionate about many, many things.