Zimbabwe's Struggle Inspires Dancer

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Nora Chipaumire grew up in Zimbabwe, a nation ruled for the last 28 years by a man President Bush calls a "discredited dictator." Now living in the U.S., Chipaumire is using her country's past and present struggles to inspire her on the stage.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, Zimbabwe is not on President Bush's African itinerary, but yesterday he did issue his strongest condemnation yet of that country's president, Robert Mugabe. Bush denounced him as a, quote, "discredited dictator whose 28 years in office defies democracy and brings economic and social misery to his people." Kept in political turmoil under Mugabe, Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate and unemployment is at 80 percent.

Mugabe refuses to step down, and will likely win next month's slanted national elections. He's been in office since 1980, back when the country was still called Rhodesia, and a liberation war had just ended white minority rule. That time's referred to as "Chimurenga", the Shona word for "struggle."

Nora Chipaumire grew up there during that time, and now as a contemporary African dance artist living in the U.S., she's using her country's past and present struggles to inspire her on the stage. I talked with Nora yesterday.

This solo show that you're doing, it is the story of the second war of liberation in Zimbabwe, your home county. How did you decide that this was a story - a history that could be told through dance?

Ms. NORA CHIPAUMIRE (Dancer): To start off with, it's "Chimurenga." And it means "struggle," but it also means to "cry." And it means "revolution" as well.

For me, it became sort of a story that I wanted to tell because I began to read about - maybe five, six, seven years ago - books written by white Zimbabweans about that same time frame. And I just started to realize that there wasn't a lot of stuff that was coming out from black Zimbabweans about the same time frame. But, you know, living in the West and a practitioner of modern dance, I just thought that this was a thing that I could address through movement, and maybe a way to begin a certain kind of discourse around specifically what's going on in Zimbabwe presently. But, sort of, using that revolution or that time frame as a way to open the doors on that discourse.

MARTIN: You endured a lot of traumatic events personally. You grew up during apartheid in Zimbabwe, and were on the front lines, on the ground during liberation. The country used to be Rhodesia. What was it like to live through that?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: Well, you know, I was a child, so I was just going through it as a…

MARTIN: How old were you?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: Well, I was born into the struggle. It really started to take off 1965 and ended in 1980. I was born 1965, so I was in it the entire time. And it was not so - until maybe I became a teenager, that I really began to understand what the aggravation was all about, because as a child you just…

MARTIN: You don't know any different.

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: You don't know any different. It's just the way it is. The fact that I've lived in townships and went to all B schools, as they're called, African schools, you know, that was not unusual to me. I didn't know anything different. And there was also a certain kind of - because of the warfare that was going on was a guerrilla warfare and kind of silent and try - an avoidance of the subject matter. And yet at the same time it was right there, you know. So, I mean, it wasn't until I got to, you know, be like 12, 13, that I really understood that there was a real struggle going on and its enormity. The enormity of it all was profound.

MARTIN: When I watch some video of your piece, and the word that just stuck in my head was defiance. It's filled with this strength and a sense of defiance. Is that fair? Do you characterize that way?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: I would say so. I would say defiance is a fair word to use for even Zimbabwe as a country right now, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: There's a lot defiance and determination to just - you know, I want to take my space in this room, or in this world. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. And, you know, even though I was in this all-girl high school, all-European high school, I mean, it was - to survive I had to defy, you know, what they thought about me. And in some ways, you know, it propelled me, you know, because I worked harder. I did my homework, and I wasn't going to get bad grades because I just wanted to, you know, to show that I could do it, that I had the right to be there. So yes, I think defiance, you know. And I think it goes to as a woman, you know, as an African woman, there are all kinds of expectations that I intend to defy.

MARTIN: Speaking of one of them, perhaps, I want to ask you about nudity. And it doesn't appear in this particular work, but you've incorporated it in other works, specific piece called "Poems." You danced topless part of the time. What does that nudity meant to convey, and how do audiences respond to it?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: Well, you know, nudity kind of brings you to a certain kind of primacy and immediacy and for me, a certain kind of urgency. I want to force the audience, I want to confront the audience with this idea that I'm a human being. I want you to look at me with all my nakedness and all my primacy. And it's like flesh and blood. I'm right here. I'm not just some, you know, ethereal beauty. And also to contrast it to the sort of the European dancer. And the part you're talking about that I perform topless, I would say bare-chested actually, because I think…

MARTIN: Yeah, topless has a different connotation, doesn't it?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: Exactly. So bare-chested…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: …bare-chested is, you know, when you see men bare-chested, you don't blink an eye, you know. But when you see a woman bare-chested, it's like, oh, my goodness.

MARTIN: You have had a varied and non-linear reality yourself. You've been to law school. You've worked in radio, you've dabbled in filmmaking. When and how did dancing come into your life?

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: I think it was - I was about, you know, 28 when I just really started taking dance seriously. I've always moved in my life, you know. And so - but I'd never taken a formal class in the sense of being in a classroom with a bar and a teacher leading the classes. I guess I've always learned dance informally before that.

But then I also just realized when I first took my modern class in Oakland, California, that it sort of brought me back, brought everything into perspective for me. That through dance, you know, I could really create my own language and tell my own stories. I was so very much moved and convinced by people like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, Isadora Duncan, you know, Mary Wigman and these women - powerful women were able to sort of break from the ballet tradition to tell their own personal stories and using their own vocabularies.

I mean, in fact, that's still what's exciting to me about modern dance or contemporary dance everyday, is that you have this freedom to break from tradition, to break from a sort of whatever is the canon and find your own way and find your own voice. It's a very liberating place for me.

MARTIN: Nora, thank you so much. Good luck with your performance.

Ms. CHIPAUMIRE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks, Nora. Take care. Nora will be performing "Chimurenga," her interpretation of Zimbabwe's second war of liberation, tonight and tomorrow night in Seattle. You can find information about that event and upcoming tour dates around the country on our blog: www.npr/bryantpark/blog.

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