When asked what drives her to make dances, choreographer-performer nora chipaumire says, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And she’s not kidding. A hearty laugh belies a fervent passion and fury. “That’s what was taken away from those humans deemed black objects from the minute the moneyed class of Europe began to use Africans as free labor and strip them of humanity. A primary need to prove black African humanity has been driving me since I can remember. Or maybe since before I remember. It’s inherent in my DNA. All my works have this as a baseline.”
And that includes “#PUNK 100% POP *N!&GA,” which the Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston presents Oct. 18 and 19. Each performance by chipaumire with her dance and music collaborators will include two of the full work’s three parts, which use the music and lyrics of Patti Smith, Grace Jones, and Rit Nzele as entrées into questions of identity and power. The work features a stage set designed by visual artists Ari Marcopoulos and Kara Walker.
Audiences will be standing for much of the roughly 90-minute show. John Andress, the ICA’s Bill T. Jones Director of Performing and Media Arts, explains, “She upends the typical passive relationship between the performer and the audience by placing both on stage. She removes the barrier of the proscenium and invites us to participate and collaborate, and to be, as she describes, complicit in the performance.” He calls chipaumire “an incredible stage presence — electric, athletic, fierce — which she harnesses to lure us into the world she creates on stage.”
The Brooklyn-based chipaumire was born in Zimbabwe, where she spent her formative years and earned a law degree from the University of Zimbabwe. She says the experience of law school taught her to think and inflamed an enthusiasm for the power of advocacy. “Growing up in [what was then] apartheid Rhodesia in entirely black spaces, I didn’t know anybody white until I was 15,” she says. “We had learned that whites were violence waiting to happen to you, [having] that constant fear and feeling of danger if you forget the power of the white human. That’s why I’m so keenly invested in life and liberty, working toward undoing the disease of colonialism and racism.”
When she came to the United States in her early 20s, she initially hoped to be a filmmaker, inspired by the likes of Spike Lee. But film equipment was expensive and it was a complicated business. “I ended up falling back into the instrument I had, which was my body,” she says. “I knew how to dance since the day I was born. [African] cultures celebrate physical expression.”
She earned graduate degrees in dance, performance, and choreography from Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and in 1998 started making her own dances. A featured performer for six years with Urban Bush Women, chipaumire served as the troupe’s associate artistic director from 2007-08, and has performed and presented work in venues around the world, accumulating a raft of honors along the way, including a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and three Bessie Awards.
She says that with each new work, she tries to reinforce important messages and “re-interrogate where the last work failed.” As one might guess from the title, “#Punk” has a raw, unfettered quality that pushes boundaries — and undoubtedly a few buttons — and it moves the choreographer’s work in a slightly new direction. “A leap sideways,” chipaumire says with a chuckle. She calls the work a live performance album, as much concert as dance, fueled by punk, pop, and Congolese rumba.
The title (verbalized, chipaumire says, as “hash tag punk, one hundred percent pop, star nigga”) is an apt description of how she sees herself. “Punk is a kind of youthful, cantankerous refusal of the status quo,” she says. Pop, she adds, can be a fascinating tool for propaganda, with the message embedded in a catchy tune. And African music, she says, is “an amazing gift to the world” she believes has been marginalized despite generating ideas that are appropriated time and again in Western music. “It’s like taking someone’s idea and once it’s in the hands of Steve Reich, it’s a masterpiece. I’m trying to interrogate this constant production of genius that has to wait for a white male to give it articulation.”
“#Punk” is the third work chipaumire has presented over the years at the ICA. “I have extreme joy to return to that amazing space,” she says. “It matters that you return again and again, and the constant engagement gives me a lot of courage. I celebrate the solidarity.”
She hopes audiences for “#Punk” leave feeling invigorated, taking away from the work “the determination to be living now, and in that living to accept all the conundrums — the good, the bad, and in between. Hopefully that ignites a youthful rancor. I’m hoping the audience remembers what it’s like to be young and reckless and take risks and in so doing move the body, because something glorious happens when you do.”
#PUNK 100% POP *N!&GA
At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Oct. 18-19
Tickets $15-$25, 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org