"Voices of Strength" | Dance review

Kettly Noël in Correspondances

Kettly Noël in Correspondances Photograph: Eric Boudet

At the conclusion of Correspondances—the first of two pieces that encompass half the “Voices of Strength” program at the Dance Center of Columbia College (the other half premieres on Saturday)—a man sitting in front of me said, “I’d have to see that [piece] 15 more times before I actually understand it.” He meant it as a compliment, like having to watch a favorite movie 100 times over to find overlooked nuance.

In similar fashion, a single viewing for Correspondances simply can’t satisfy. And that’s meant in the absolute best sense. The same can be said about Quartiers Libres, a harrowing work choreographed and performed by Nadia Beugre. These artists take the stage with a purpose, and they succeed in no small way. Plus, we’re talking themes of Imperialism, Colonialism, and just about all –isms in between. A landscape like that can be a challenge to navigate, never mind conveying those messages on a dance stage. For many artists, the hard part is to comprehensively delve into heavy topics without making them feel trite or misunderstood. Not in this case. For this performance, the authenticity is its greatest attribute.

On a mostly black stage, peppered with props, Kettly Noël and Nelisiwe Xaba—the creative duo behind Correspondances—track their relationship over time, touching on common issues of Third World oppression. What begins with impressionable, naive girls, eventually gives way to adulthood. To start, both women wear short dresses and stilleto heels. They later shed the materialistic garb for sports bras and athletic shorts, suggesting transition. But the end is somewhat ambiguous, as they drown themselves in milk—a type of life force—sliding and swirling on the wet floor, while a video montage of their written “correspondences” plays behind them. While perplexing, it's nevertheless engaging.

Quartiers Libres from Nadia Beugre dispenses with comfort. She begins in the audience, microphone in hand, singing and inviting others to join with her. It’s happy, and yet the mess of chords around her neck feels ominous, as she begins to tangle herself among the wires. In the midst of her refrain, Beugre gags herself with the mic. When she seeks help from the audience, it’s up to a stranger to free her. Buegre’s solo is a gutsy, moving performance of masochistic rage. The audience can’t help but feel uncomfortable. But Buegre’s intention is to do just that. “You’re not here for a pretty dance,” she says with her eyes. “This is going to make you hurt, watching me hurt myself.”

"Voices of Strength" continues through September 15 at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. Tickets available at tickets.colum.edu.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)