‘Voices of Strength: Two Programs of Contemporary Dance and Theater by Women in Africa’ at The Kennedy Center by Jennifer Perry

On October 4 and 5, 2012, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts played host to a MAPP International Productions tour that showcases the work of talented female choreographers from Haiti, South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire, Mozambique, and Morocco. The four pieces presented over two nights- Correspondences, Quartiers Libres, Sombra, and Madame Plaza – provide commentary on a variety of socio-political issues salient to the contemporary African experience from the female perspective. Kettly Noel and Nelisiwe Xaba’s Correspondences and Nadia Beugré’s Quartiers Libres, presented on October 4th and performed by the choreographers themselves, were effective in conveying a strong and compelling social message through precise and athletic modern dance and innovative presentational elements. However, I found all of these elements coalesced better in Beugré’s piece.

Haitian Kettly Noel and South African Nelisiwe Xaba’s Correspondences is interesting in that it focuses on many issues – the increasing role of social media and globalization in shaping the individual and collective experience of the modern African woman, corrupt economic practices of leaders willing to sacrifice public good for individual profit, power disparities, and gender inequality. While a focus on a smaller set of issues might have resulted in a ‘tighter’ story, the use of French and English language dialogue, costume (Joel Andrianomearisoa) changes, contemporary music, and puppetry, as well as fast-paced and varied projections (Frédéric Koening) assisted in centering the audience’s attention on the messages at hand. The natural and believable chemistry between Noel and Xaba enhanced the performance, which incorporated a variety of modern and classical dance elements. These moves were performed with precision and power. The final moments of the 1-hour piece were the strongest. In addition to painting a stunning visual picture, the innovative choice to use liquid flowing from the above the stage, allowed the two dancers to more than adequately convey a powerful emotional message about being trapped and powerless as they engaged in intricate and athletic choreography.

Performance image of Nelisiwe Xaba and Kettly Noël in ‘Correspondances.’ Photo by Eric BOUDET/Eric BOUDET.

Ivorian Nadia Beugré’s Quartiers Libres, with dramaturgical support from Boris Hennion, was perhaps one of the best attempts I’ve seen to capture the power struggles and violence that can emerge when a populace is subjected to enduring illegitimate, despotic, and tyrannical leadership.

As an individual, Beugré attempts to escape from this situation where she has no voice and gain freedom and security. This journey is complicated and challenging, but the end result may be worth the pain.

From her initial moments in the audience singing a song about her struggle, to the end of the piece where she is finally free from her literal and figurative chains, Beugré had a strong and compelling presence – the kind where you can’t help but to watch her every move. Her pain was felt through every dramatic and intense movement, no matter how small. Further, these jerky movements never appeared forced or choreographed down to the nanosecond, which made the performance all the more powerful and natural. Her often times uncomfortable interaction with the audience further illuminated how personal Beugré’s struggle was and how collective action was (and is) required to remedy it. In about 45 minutes, Beugré conveyed an array of emotions – from despair and fear to hope. She showed that sometimes words aren’t enough to capture how it feels to be trapped in a violence-filled environment and went to great lengths to demonstrate the gravity of her situation- and the situation others face in many African nations experiencing conflict- with absolutely heart-breaking results.

MAPP International Productions and The Kennedy Center deserve many accolades for bringing these powerful works to the Washington, DC community. Whether one works in the international affairs/human rights arena or not, these pieces deserve to be seen. Art-lovers and policy wonks alike are apt to appreciate their merits.

Running Time for the October 4th performance: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Voices of Strength: Two Programs of Contemporary Dance and Theater by Women in Africa was presented over two nights at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts– 2700 F St, NW in Washington, DC- on October 4 and 5, 2012.  For tickets to other Kennedy Center performances, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.


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