Nora Chipaumire and Thomas Mapfumo at the August Wilson Center | Program Notes

Nora Chipaumire and Thomas Mapfumo at the August Wilson Center

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Honestly, I would have stepped out to see either of the two headliners on his or her own. Chipaumire is the Zimbabwe-born choreographer and dancer with a couple impressive Pittsburgh performances on her resume. Mapfumo, also a Zimbabwean ex-pat, is his country's musical conscience: a legendary Afropop pioneer who supported anti-colonial efforts in the '70s but fled a decade ago, with dictator Robert Mugabe made life hard for political dissidents.

Their touring show, lions will road, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rain will break: gukuranhundi, visited the Wilson Center last night. Chipaumire touts the work as an attack on cultural stereotypes about African backwardness and exoticism. It was good -- at times, very good -- but I occasionally wondered whether it was more than the sum of its estimable parts.

The evening started with music by Mapfumo and his band, The Blacks Unlimited, with him on guitar, a lead guitarist, a man on mbira (a traditional thumb piano, amplied) and a percussionist. The style would be familiar to anyone who's heard a little contemporary African pop: pulsing rhythms marked by liquid single-note electric-guitar runs and occasional soulful vocals (sung, I believe, in Shona). Then Chipaumire and male dancer Souleymane Badolo began a series of solos and duets, all with wall-to-wall music by the band, which got its own mini-set midway through.

About a third of the show, moreover, was seen through video projected on a stage-spanning screen, with evocative animated images of nature mixing with imagery referencing Zimbabwe's ancient cities.

Much of this was enthralling. Chipaumire and Badolo are fine dancers who move in a way that's neither "traditional" nor modern, but a little of both. It's a style familiar to those who saw Chipaumire's riveting solo work Chimurenga here, in 2007, or Becoming Angels, an original work she set on Dance Alloy Theater in 2009. Many movements are grounded, with the dancers taking a low center of gravity, with arcing arm motions and feet that often hit the floor full-soled, with a thump.

This was punctuated by sequences including an acrobatically flailing solo by Badolo and a sort of damaged tango by he and Chipaumire, in which she starts out holding him up (perhaps even reviving his lifeless body) and they end up supporting each other. With The Black Unlimited's chiming, repetitive music (which at times suggested trance-inducing Indonesian gamelan music), the effect could be hypnotic.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how much of Chipaumire's message got through. You had to understand that her spoken introductory travelogue about her homeland ("Victoria Falls!") was intended ironically, not invitationally, and I'm not sure that was apparent to all. And if you weren't along for that ride, I suspect it was hard to plug into the emotional power of what followed.

Moreover, sometimes it just felt odd for a musical giant like Mapfumo -- whose typical venue is a crowded nightclub -- to be leading a backing band for someone else's vision.

Still, the concluding passage worked well, with Chipaumire, in the midst of an energetically detailed solo, concisely emoting a troubled relationship with her audience: She'd stop dancing in order to warily size up the space between the joyful movement she might be making and what ticket-buyers might expect from an African artist. Mapfumo's sounds were beautiful. And in how many other venues in Pittsburgh could you sit with a rowful of African gentlemen (one in a "Zimbabwe" shirt) excited to see artists also born a few thousand miles away, in the place they call home?

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