“Tony,” a child-size puppet with a cherubic doll’s face, a turtle-shell potbelly, and an otherwise spindly body made from odds and ends, is the surprising protagonist in Nami Yamamoto’s a howling flower. Four human performers maneuver around him, their sense of delicate devotion shifting abruptly to more forceful movements.
In Convoys, Curfews and Roadblocks, soloist Nora Chipaumire brims with raw energy, hurling unseen rocks and shouting unheard epithets. She throws herself to the ground repeatedly and hobbles, bent over, across the stage. She pauses for a moment and assumes something like a boxer’s stance, ready—eager, even—to resume battle.
Then there’s the quintet of “uncivilized women” in luciana achugar’s A Super Natural Return to Love. Got up in identical navy smocks and fishnet stockings—a cross between assembly-line workers and Busby Berkeley showgirls—they sway across the stage, uniting and dividing, inching their way toward a mutable statement: the power of collectivity? The oppression of homogeneity? Both?
Yamamoto, Chipaumire, and achugar are women of similar age but from three different continents (their countries of origin are Japan, Zimbabwe, and Uruguay, respectively) and vastly different experiences. All, however, eventually found their way to New York, a city where they have established themselves on a tough playing field. “It is a great place to become more and more specific about what your own aesthetic is and to become more rigorous about your own ideas,” says achugar, whereas Chipaumire values the connections to other places. “Africa is in the streets—I hear it, see it,” she says. “This access to all people is what keeps New York on the cutting edge.” Yamamoto finds solidarity with other experimental artists: “I am sure seeing how other people are taking a risk—from seeing people’s works or talking with my friends—makes me encouraged to go on my way.”
Walker program manager Michèle Steinwald worked with Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, to bring these dancemakers together for the series New World Dance: New York. “Our goal is to introduce new voices in dance-making to the Twin Cities and have our audience learn and grow as the artists’ careers do,” she says. “For this pilot project, we were drawn to place our microscope over New York, given how much variety that city contains.” Ultimately, she and Bither selected this trio because of the ways in which they illuminate distinct yet complementary strands of human experience: individual, social, spiritual.
A Super Natural Return to Love is suffused with an almost visceral earthiness, its tightly woven choreography slowly unraveling into a sensually charted and emotionally heightened flow. Its sensibility “could be perhaps compared to Latin American literature and/or Spanish cinema, a la Almodóvar,” says achugar, “because it embraces emotion and drama in an exaggerated way, verging on the absurd, that is both a celebration and a mocking of itself.”
In contrast to achugar’s references to female archetypes and an industrialized, depersonalized culture, Chipaumire’s Convoys is directly rooted in a personal sense of defiance. Her childhood in Zimbabwe coincided with that country’s Second War of Liberation, a period of political violence, human rights violations, and economic collapse. As she told an interviewer, it was only as a self-exiled modern dancer in New York that she thought the personal and collective traumas she experienced were something she “could address through movement.” She began a certain kind of discourse around what’s going on in Zimbabwe presently, using the revolution as a way to open the doors.
On another plane altogether is a howling flower, which is based around Yamamoto’s inspirations from observing her young niece and her aging father: “One life is blooming and the other is kind of ending, but when I look at a point of their lives, they are at a very similar stage,” she says. The character of Tony, whom she says “was created thinking of a fat skinny old baby,” embodies both the young and the elderly: “He can carry past, present, and future at the same time.” In that sense, despite his all-too-human gestures, the puppet becomes an almost spiritual presence in the piece.
These choreographers, and the work they present as part of New World Dance: New York, are also complementary in terms of their creative process. Yamamoto and achugar both consider their dancers as individuals in crafting their choreography. Specifically, achugar seeks ways to heighten awareness of dancers as laborers, and to bridge barriers between them and audiences that traditionally watch at some remove. Yamamoto zeroes in on the personal characteristics of her dancers, incorporating their idiosyncrasies into her work. Chipaumire, for her part, essentially collaborated with her own story and experiences for the autobiographical Convoys.
In order to present three dance works in one evening, Steinwald helped each choreographer find ways to excerpt her piece. Because of the density of the choreography in A Super Natural Return to Love, which Steinwald describes as “a structured dance pulled by female experience,” achugar condensed the piece just for this performance. The focus in a howling flower is on the opening sections, “to lead the audience into this unusual world Nami creates, and then immerse them in it.” And the middle section of Convoys “goes to the heart of what is going on in Nora’s story. You get the friction, the climax, and the sense of her personal voice.”
New World Dance: New York is a potent taste of the talent that is continually bubbling up through the ranks in that city. “We chose this shared evening format so people could see a range of fresh approaches at a reasonable price,” says Steinwald. “Since dance is flourishing outside New York as well, this presentation can serve as a model for future evenings with choreographers from other regions of the country.”