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African Women Show Their Voices of Strength

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Nelisiwe Xaba in Correspondances.
Photo by Eric Boudet.
When people think “African dance,” inevitably a specific aesthetic (normally of the grounded, lively, and percussion heavy sort) comes to mind. The tour “Voices of Strength,” which features work and performance by female African artists, challenges this notion. These artists have distinctly contemporary voices and are simply producing contemporary art, influenced by their place of origin, that speaks to all audiences. This Friday, September 28, marked the first evening of a 2-night mini-festival held at the Moore Theater. Good art makes the viewer question, think, and hopefully see something in a new light. Friday’s show exceeded these qualifications; undoubtedly, this evening’s show will do the same.

Correspondences, choreographed and performed by Ketley Noël (originally from Haiti and now living in Mali) and Nelisiwe Xaba (of South Africa) tells a story of women’s friendship, its camaraderie, playfulness, and sometimes cruel cattiness. Alternating between spoken word and dance, this witty dance-theater piece constructed many memorable images and phrases. Xaba partnering a knee-high white silk doll, the duo miming the words of “Sweet Dreams” as they bounced atop a table, and the dangling udders of milk that the women puncture, drink, shower themselves in and later slip and slide across the floor in, are a few that stick in the mind’s eye. The piece swings from the women’s light-hearted bickering to the heavier issues of body image and the rampant corruption in Africa, all with humor and wit. Xaba claims she dresses up so that “When a man turns his head, he’s got something good to look at,” and Noël expresses her desire to have lots of money because it can buy so many things: “art, love, men, women, a continent. Why not Africa?” The two women are engrossing performers, self-assured and convincing.

Nadia Beaugré in Quartiers Libres.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
The solo work by Nadia Beaugré of Côte d’Ivoire titled Quartiers Libres has a raw, almost feral quality to it at times. Beaugré begins in the audience, ambling to the stage by scooting over audience members, and softly singing a chant that periodically becomes a howling wail. Throughout the piece she confronts many issues, society’s needless consumption and waste, the constraints of femininity, and the balance of cultural expectations and personal freedoms. To this end, she utilizes a large amount of plastic bottles: many hang from the ceiling like a beaded curtain and others make a spherical piece, which she dons to roll across the stage, a plastic tumbleweed. Her movement is wild; she seems to deliberately throw herself off-kilter, constantly testing her own boundaries. At one point she distorts the microphone cord, which originally seemed an ornamental necklace, into a twisted noose, entangling her face in the coil of black rope. She hobbles to the audience in this predicament until someone understands her plea and helps her untangle. Though often dark, the piece is not without humor. She flashes peace signs and draws attention to her gyrating pelvis by pointing at it with a smile as she bumps and grinds to pulsing electronic sounds. Beaugré more than holds her own in this intriguing, unrestrained work.

Seattle was given a rare treat to see and hear these diverse voices from Africa. Saturday’s performance will feature Maria Helena Pinto (Mozambique) and Bouchra Ouizguen (Morocco). If it’s anything like Friday’s performance, it won’t disappoint.