It seems only appropriate to begin this year with one of my favourite dance films ever. Nora (2008) was directed by Russian filmmaker Alla Kovgan and David Hinton (a British filmmaker, I assume, well-known for directing DV8’s Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men). The 35 minute film follows the story of Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire and it is set and filmed in Southern Africa (thus it is slightly difficult not to become overly enthusiastic about a film that, for me, feels quite close to home).
I first heard of Nora in 2012 at a dance film workshop where we watched the trailer. Just five minutes of the film seduced me completely and finally I bought the DVD last year. Getting to watch the entire film was kind of amazing, I did something I’ve never done when watching dance before – I cried. (That’s me being massively brave and vulnerable, by the way). I only realized after watching it a second time that part of what affected me so much was the strength of the narrative. We are told the story of Nora Chipaumire and to a certain extent, too – the story of her country, Zimbabwe.
Narrative in dance is always a mildly controversial sort of topic, despite the idea of ‘body language’ it is difficult to convey the subtleties of a story without voice and with only the body. This can often result in mime or gesture (since, traditionally there is little spoken language in dance for some silly reason). In Nora, the story progresses with the help of intertitles, brief pieces of text slotted in between scenes that introduce various characters or stages in Nora’s life. The intertitles are not long, usually a short sentence, but they are just enough to allow for an extra depth of understanding without imposing on the viewer’s interpretation. In fact, everything about the film is somewhat spare. The movement, the scenes, the music – there is no excess, no waste. Every aspect of the film is deliberate, there is a sense of stripped down simplicity that allows for a certain complex power.
Anyway – the intertitles. I felt them to be so effective as a way of moving along the film. They reminded me of silent films with movement and action interrupted by text and explanation. It seems such a brilliant and underused tool in dance film, particularly when there is a definite story that needs telling. Then it becomes not only the choreographing of physical movement, but choreographing the movement of narrative, the way in which a tale unfolds and dips and changes is just as fascinating as watching a body doing the same thing. There is rhythm, progression and conclusion, all those things we like so much. In the case of this dance film, the story, the movement, the movement of the story, the story of movement, it is all beautifully and thoughtfully created. What’s more, the narrative allows for so many various layers of the choreography to be explored, politics, gender and other themes that I don’t think I can quite properly discuss in a short post such as this.
The movement, choreographed by Chipaumire, is powerful just like she is. Her commanding presence allows for small, subtle movements that explode from time to time. Throughout the film, there is quiet and there is explosion, the discord of the two seem to work in perfect harmony. Daily activities and the repetitive habitual movement that fill up our mundane lives (washing hands, brushing teeth, rubbing cream onto skin), have a prominent place throughout the film and act as a kind of cornerstone in constructing an idea of the world that surrounded Nora and her youth.
I feel as though I’m not doing the film justice, and I’m not sure if you will feel the same way about this film as I do… All I can do is encourage you to watch some excerpts and let you know I think it a beautiful and worthwhile piece of art.