In a solo called "Sombra," Maria Helena Pinto dances with a bucket covering her head. No one sees the look in Pinto's eyes. Her aim is to raise awareness about women who live in isolation.

"It's a struggle to get out of the shadows to get a name, a face, a voice," said the Maputo, Mozambique-based choreographer via translator by phone from Seattle. "There are so many [women] who are working and reflecting and organizing important projects, but we never know who they are -- they are not put in front. It's men that place themselves in front."

Not so with the "Voices of Strength" series, which features works by five women from Africa who are leading the artistic vanguard in their countries. They are also introducing international audiences to new forms of contemporary dance and theater. Their stop this week at Walker Art Center is one of six in the United States for this mini-festival presented with New York's MAPP International Productions.

"There are people from different parts of the world making adventurous work, but it may not conform to our expectations," said Philip Bither, the Walker's senior curator of performing arts. Indeed, western audiences have only begun to grasp the depth, diversity and innovation of contemporary African artists.

"It's always a challenge in how we present ourselves and how others view us," said South Africa's Nelisiwe Xaba, also by phone from Seattle. "Especially in Europe and America, it's easier to put Africans in one bucket and not consider the fact that Africa is part of the changing world, part of the global world. ... Hopefully, 'Voices of Strength' will open the eyes of the audience."

Wit and image

There are two "Voices of Strength" programs. The first, set for the first and third nights, includes "Correspondances" by the Johannesburg-based choreographer/dancer Xaba in collaboration with Kettly Noël, who founded a dance organization, Donko Seko, in Bamako, the capital of Mali.

"Correspondances" grew out of lengthy conversations about "African politics, gender politics, and politics between women also," said Xaba, "the love and hate that we have amongst each other, even though we want to fight for the rights of women."

Xaba and Noël use sharp wit and indelible imagery to tackle an array of issues around race, body image, sexuality, beauty, friendship and even reinterpretations of classical dance forms. "I think it is some kind of collage," Xaba added. "It doesn't just talk about one story until the end."

Xaba and Noël share the show with Ivory Coast's Nadia Beugré, who delivers an emotionally raw and physically powerful solo, "Quartiers Libres," amid a stark environment of tangled microphone cords and plastic water bottles (as seen on DVD). Beugré was a member of Compagnie TchéTché, a barrier-smashing women's ensemble that performed at the Walker several years ago.

Tackling taboos

Pinto's "Sombra" is on the second program. Reflecting on the risks that come with work that confronts injustice, the choreographer remains certain of her mission.

"It's hard to approach any taboo subjects in Mozambique. I feel it is my position as an artist to be critical and to go to places that are hurtful and that will advance society," Pinto said. "But I have a positive approach so it's not about creating a violent situation. That doesn't solve anything. It's important to establish a dialogue with the audience through the piece."

Morocco's Bouchra Ouizguen will share the evening with Pinto. "Madame Plaza" features three Aïta-style vocalists, along with Ouizguen. The Aïta singing tradition comes from Morocco's urban cabarets. The women's otherworldly wailing and chanting is entrancing. But based upon seeing the work on DVD, Ouizguen's "Madame Plaza" is not simply about voices raised up or bodies in motion. It offers subtle yet poignant satire about gender roles and deep-seated social mores.

Local connections

During their stay in the Twin Cities, the female artists from "Voices of Strength" will be connecting with local women working in dance, theater and performance art. "They will be sharing work," Bither said. "They will be getting into conversations about challenges women face, with the hope for future collaborations." In addition, Noël and Xaba will perform a site-specific piece in one of the museum's gallery spaces on Thursday evening.

Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.