In a cluttered studio in Columbus, Ohio, Tawanda Chabikwa ’07 dances along a path of white paper. At the wall, cornered, he stops, but only momentarily. Soon he’s upside-down, his weight on his head. The quiet Shona chant that has been playing is silenced and the dancer becomes another sort of creature, arms and legs moving along the wall, a noose-like black rope dangling ominously near him. Returning to his feet, he climbs onto a wobbling pile of books and balances, unsteadily, then knocks the pile down and he’s on the floor pushing the books with his head. Later, Tawanda returns to the white paper, crossing it on his knees and elbows like a penitent, then rising to dance jubilant before collapsing to the ground, almost writhing now. Several times he is back at the wall and on his head — spinning the world, definitions, himself, upside-down.
The fifteen-minute performance of Digression in the Fourth Movement ends with Tawanda taking a brush and a pail of black paint, materializing his ephemeral gestures on the now-rumpled white paper, which he then rolls into and rises, dancing, the paper echoing the rolled-up skirts of African women. Shortly before the performance closes, the paper tears away and becomes a body Tawanda holds to him, then abandons, ending the dance with gestures intended to cleanse and move on.
With its piles of books, gestural painting, and references to Africa and acrobatics, with its unusual segues, turning movement on its head, this dance could be an autobiography. Tawanda first choreographed and performed it in 2012 in his homeland of Zimbabwe, when he briefly served as artistic director of Tumbuka, the premier Zimbabwean contemporary dance company. A consummate artist, Tawanda is devoted to exploring the currents that flow beneath our lives, the ones that bind us as humans. Stories and myths — whether from science, contemporary theory, or ancient mystics — nourish him, as does the gesture, the movement that illuminates being.
Tawanda dances, yes. He also writes, makes music, and paints. For his senior project at COA, he wrote the novel Baobabs in Heaven, which he later published (see Spring 2011), and choreographed and performed an evening of dance. He is now in a PhD program in dance studies at Ohio State University. But he continues to practice his arts — as well as “hiking and photographing, making videos, reading quantum physics, religious texts, The Economist, and the New Yorker, and spending time on Facebook and YouTube.” These media feed him. Digression emerged from some writing Tawanda had done. “This happens quite a lot — one medium sparks another, and they bounce back and forth until I find the greatest form for it.” In this case, the dance completed Tawanda’s prose.
For those of us who struggle with one expressive form, Tawanda’s reach seems astounding. When I mention this over lunch in Bar Harbor during a summer visit to Maine, he laughs. “What is the paradox?” he asks. “Time?” I venture. “My mother asks the same question,” he returns, and laughs again. Tawanda laughs a lot — possibly a means of deflecting the intensity of his thoughts. But when he dances, this slight, muscular man with dreadlocks falling in curls down his back is both breathtaking and serious: agile, delicate, precise.
“If I could, I’d do it all, all the time,” Tawanda continues. “Painting with my toes, writing with my hands, wriggling with my heart.” As he speaks, he places his hands in a circle in front of his chest and rocks them, as if rocking his heart, his being.
Tawanda’s own story begins in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the second of four children. He describes his education as “little boys in grey and khaki uniforms, shorts, shirts and ties, hats, blazers, and socks pulled up to your neck.” His earliest dance training was in ballroom style; his first accolades were primary school prizes for the Lindy hop and cha-cha. Summers imbued another legacy: learning the stories and dances of his Shona heritage around the communal fires of his ancestral village. These movements have since been joined by a multitude of others — from modern dance and rugby to capoeira and salsa. But his days in urban Harare and his ancestral enclave remain central. Though he left Zimbabwe at fifteen, heading to the Li Po Chun United World College in Hong Kong, and from there to COA, this heritage continues to inform his work.
Tawanda never expected to be immersed in the arts. At Li Po Chun he focused on science until one day he found himself walking by the art studio, looking longingly inside. Chrys Hill, the art teacher, called him in. “‘Paints are expensive,’” Tawanda objected. “‘It’s in the budget,’” Chrys assured him, inviting him to use the studio at will. Soon after, “when life things were gathering in my mind,” as he says, and he was wandering around campus hours after midnight, Tawanda found the lights on in the empty arts studio and lost himself inside. That was it. Chrys and his wife Anne became mentors and the couple, along with the art he was making and the dance he began to explore, helped him to understand the questions of a young Zimbabwean in a new world. “I haven’t turned back since,” says Tawanda.
What began in Hong Kong blossomed at COA where Tawanda studied with arts faculty members Dru Colbert and Nancy Andrews, with literature and film lecturer Colin Capers, with creative writing faculty member Bill Carpenter, and dance with visiting teachers. Through math and physics faculty member Dave Feldman’s Chaos and Fractals class he found a mathematical basis to his own observations that in seashells and African compounds alike, the whole echoes the part. Tawanda laughs again, “It might as well have been an art class. Dave doesn’t know it — don’t tell him that!
For Tawanda, the many manifestations of creativity have but one origin: the body. Whatever its form, he sees all creativity as movement. The body is where mind, spirit, instinct, and heart reside. “Everything is body, it’s common sense to me,” he says. “The writing is alive in body, that’s how it comes out, through the written gesture.”
In seeking to understand the source of humans’ urge toward art, part of Tawanda’s PhD work is practice-based research, investigating his own creative process through an autoethnography that’s centered in how cultural ideas are learned and carried within the body. “It’s the actual movement itself that creates knowledge,” he says. Dance, he writes, produces an internal intelligence that lives “at the intersection of multiple fields of knowledge — culture studies, technology, cognitive neuroscience, aesthetics, semiotics, politics, philosophy.”
More specifically, Tawanda is looking at the global presence of Africanness as a way of understanding the place of cultural experience within our bodies. To that end, this multi-talented artist has segued into theory, reading everything from ancient African texts to psychoanalyst and revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, dance historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild, African scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, and a range of third-world feminist theorists. “I am in school because reading — yes, deep, nerdy, intense, verbose reading — inspires me, cultivates my mind, and cultivates my practice,” he says.
In studying while doing, theorizing while making, does he fear that the analysis of creativity will disrupt the source of his art? Tawanda smiles, dispelling the question. “I won’t steal from the magic of creativity by speaking its name — why not sing the ninety-nine names of Allah? Why be shy about it — it’s only my longing to be a part of this creative flow.” Definitions, he says, whether of creativity or the thing one creates, “are places we gather, not places that should put us apart.”
Life as ritual
This is not a dispassionate quest. Tawanda seeks to understand how dance is transformative, regardless of the culture. He frequently works collaboratively, looking at both life and dance as ritual. “I’ve read that rather than performing rituals, most traditional African communities simply ritualize their life,” he says. There’s a mission driving this life-as-ritual. Some negative attitudes are being imbued as truth within our bodies, he adds, causing a separation between people and within people. His ultimate search is to “harness the healing powers of dance to cultivate more sustainable ways of being.”
In Tawanda’s dance Inheritance — Dunhu reMhondoro, which he created as part of his dance MFA from Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, one performer lifts high above the others, circling the air suspended on a rope. Elsewhere on the stage, five other dancers, all dressed in white, seem to be reaching, searching while the sounds first of birds, then of beasts emerge over calm, quiet music. Among the Shona people, says Tawanda, dunhu reMhondoro can be translated as the valley of the spirits. It’s a phrase used to describe life’s journey, which can be perceived as a passage through the wilderness. This journey may be dangerous, but there is protection. The spirits — one’s ancestors — walk beside their descendants at times appearing as watchful, gentle lions. To Tawanda, this reflects the eternal cycle of life, a river of self that connects in all directions: to one’s ancestors, to the as-yet-unborn, and outward, to one’s family and community. “The tree would not grow if it did not long for the sun — and the water,” he says. Longing, reaching, in all directions.
For many years, though he was on scholarship, Tawanda managed to support the education of as many as fifteen AIDS orphans in his ancestral village who otherwise couldn’t go to school. The funds came from ticket and painting sales, and the help of friends. Using art for fundraising is tricky, but Tawanda recognizes few boundaries. “Perhaps because of a short attention span, I tend to think in multiple ways about a single thing and to want to know it. We could go philosophical, spiritual or new age with it, or just pure quantum physics: we are made of the same thing as stars, every single bit of us.” Again, Tawanda gestures, one hand circling in front of him, and then both come together almost tenderly, shaping a sphere. “That makes me smile,” he says.
As Tawanda works toward publishing his theories of creativity, he continues to pen a second novel, and to paint, make music, collaborate, and dance. “I choose dance because nothing escapes the body — what is more human ecological than dance?” he says, and then, “I want to dance until I disappear, because it isn’t dance. At some point everything is shed and you can truly be with people, you feel like you’ve joined what Rumi calls the ‘migration of intelligences’ because you’ve cut the crap, and the tax payments, and the wars, and the jealousies, and fears. You’re finally as you truly are meant to be, you just grow — creativity, vitality, life.”
To see Tawanda’s dances and other work, visit ndiniwako.org.