When it comes to finding a fun Friday or Saturday night activity on campus, I have only one rule: Never go to an Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center show. Too many times have I sat through a terribly boring, hyperly experimental show that has far exceeded my understanding and attention span. So, when I wandered into Studio 1 on the fifth floor of the controversial boat building, I was kicking myself for not heeding my own advice.
I was there to see Miriam by Nora Chipaumire. The description promised a look at the tension between a woman’s personal self and social expectations. I thought, “Heck yes, I will be able to ‘identify’ with this performance. I will be able to understand what’s going on!” Boy howdy, was I mistaken. That performance went so far over my head that passengers in commercial airplanes, if they happened to be looking out the window at the correct time, would have been able to see the concept pass right on by. (I like to imagine they are pointing out the window explaining to those next to them, “See look, her erratic dance movements represent the rejection of femininity and stereotypes imposed upon the African woman.”)
The event was held in the side studio of the fifth floor of EMPAC. A smaller space than the main theater, the lack of built-in chairs allows for performers to mold the room into whichever format they choose. Chipaumire set up the space so that two rows of seating encircled a square performance area, which was blocked off on two sides by caution tape. Various items were strewn about within the square including, what took me much longer to notice than it should have, a raised foot. A woman was lying on her back with her leg in the air for the entirety of the audience seating process. She had blended herself so perfectly into the scenery and was placed so awkwardly that I was felt amazed and uncomfortable by her position. This set the tone for the rest of the show as both emotions were extended for the entirety of the piece.
The performance was composed entirely of two women: one (Chipaumire) featured primarily within the center of the room, speaking mostly in grunts and cries. The other, performed by Okwui Okpokwasili, spent most of the time circling the area, dressed in a wing-like headdress and speaking through a megaphone. Both were amazing dancers and athletes. All of the actions the performers made seemed uncomfortable and difficult; they moved jarringly and hunched over. None of their actions were graceful or pretty. But whilst their body movements were unnatural, it gave the performers a chance to demonstrate their athleticism and control. Uncomfortable as it appeared, it was obvious (even to me) that every action was deliberate, and both dancers were completely in control of their movements.
Not only was the performance difficult to understand, but Chipaumire’s use of lighting and the megaphone prop made it difficult to watch. Instead of amplifying her voice to a level of clarity, the device simply distorted the speech, making it impossible to understand. The use of bright lighting in the completely dark room served only to blind the audience. By the end of the event, I was frustrated with my inability to focus or latch onto anything concrete; I couldn’t see clearly, I couldn’t hear anything anyone was saying, and I was nowhere near being able to understand the performer’s actions.
At the end of the performance, after the lights came back on and the applause died down, the person next to me loudly exclaimed, “That was great! Really well done.” I saw few to no skeptical looks between couples, and upon exiting the EMPAC building, I did not hear one giggle or “Oh my goodness what did that mean?” These typical exclamations are common with past shows I have been to, and since they were lacking after this performance, I can only assume that Chipaumire did a fantastic job.
I wish I had seen this performance as part of a class, or that someone would be able to describe to me what happened. As it stands now, I believe the performers did an excellent job and that the show was thought provoking. However, I did not get it and was quickly frustrated and bored by the experience. But, so is the life of an EMPAC show. You never know what you are going to get, nor do you understand what you got. If you make it through the whole experience awake and alive, I count it as a success.