‘Lions’ performance roars onstage

On MainStage of the ’62 Center this weekend, bodies, sounds and imagery were melded into a contemporary collage of social commentary. The performance of “lions will roar, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rains will break: gukurahundi” was as sweepingly expansive as its name suggests. Also like its title, the performance favored striking impressions more than coherent, developed ideas.
Music by Thomas Mapfumo and a section of his group The Blacks Unlimited pulled the audience in from the beginning. The “roars” from this artist, known as “The Lion of Zimbabwe,” stirred vibrancy and tension into an atmosphere lit by candlelight. In front of the stage was a ceiling-to-floor projection screen on which played stylized animations by Joelle Dietrick and Romain Tardy. Music by The Blacks Unlimited moved the scene forward. The theater “entered” a digital diorama, which focused on the remains of a building. As the performance returned to this scene, it became apparent that these were the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a site that served as historical proof of the grandeur of the kingdom that the nation once was. The images progressed through a crowd of silhouetted Europeans, focusing on a British flag. The scene abruptly flipped toward its inverse, where Africans were assembled before a billowing printed tapestry. These movements through the artwork, woven with the melodies of Mapfumo’s ensemble, were the most seamless parts of the performance.
The music and animations faded, as choreographer Nora Chipaumire appeared and announced, “Hello, and welcome to Zimbabwe!” Her narration built energy and slowed at times, as she gave a verbal tour of the history and social climate of her homeland as if delivering poetry. In loose, black clothes, she struck poses to punctuate her thoughts. Chipaumire explained how she and Mapfumo met over a common desire of “finding ways into the work that dries international connections.”
The notes from The Black Unlimited’s next piece plinked in accompaniment to falling digital droplets. These images shifted to an array of strobe lights, which converged into luminous clouds onscreen. Joined by Burkina Fasan and dancer Souleymane Badolo, Chipaumire took center stage. Their complementary strides and lunges were interspersed with instances of them holding their poses in tests of balance. “Lions will roar” cumulated here, voices and melody making their rounds throughout the theater as the dancers cycled through a series of movements and imagery looped on the stage.
The dancers became immersed in the projections as illustrated rain fell through shadowy branches. Chipaumire and Badolo swept and reached in synchronization. Their movements were sometimes deliberate and at other times sinuous and fluid. The animations panned through brambles to a perched bird, moved on to grains falling before a pulsing light and then a flock of wheeling birds took wing. The dancers also took flight in bursts of energized movement and deliberate pauses.
The performance had compelling aesthetics, but the audience would truly have appreciated some context. The titular “gukurahundi,” which in Shona means “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains,” refers to the Matabeleland Massacres. In the early 1980s, President Mugabe executed tens of thousands of innocents during political unrest with his use of his North Korean trained Fifth Brigade; this is the very kind of injustice that Mapfumo was eventually exiled for protesting against.
Badolo had a solo comprised of his building momentum in his motions before collapsing. The Blacks Unlimited expressed his passions with dramatic musical accompaniment. He literally threw himself into his performance, collapsing on the stage before springing into the next section of his choreography. This physical demonstration of an internal struggle to overcome harkened to Zimbabwe’s aspirations to achieve societal balance and economic prosperity. Eventually, Badolo lay motionless on his back. Chipaumire, who had been watching, strode around her fellow dancer, lifted him and waltzed with her unresponsive partner. Their movements dissolved into an embrace and back again as they left the stage.
Using a red backlight, Chipaumire and Badolo contorted in front of a montage of previous animations as well as still pictures from their own performance. The finale left the performers breathless and the viewers applauding – while also still wondering.
The audience took from “lions will roar” a myriad of inspirations and the beginnings of thoughts that should be continued. At the very least, they can develop those thoughts beyond the performance into conversations about the perceptions of Africa.

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