In “Agbara Obirin (Strong Women),” presented by Contempo Physical Dance over the weekend at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul, seven female artists summoned the spirits of African goddesses. They entered dramatically through the auditorium’s side doors, each dancer holding her hands in a V behind her back. That struck a certain solemnity as they walked in procession toward the stage.
Choreographed by Brazil’s Nildinha Fonseca, the show prominently featured ritual. Dancers pounded their fists to the ground. They raised their gazes to the sky. Early in the show, a water-filled metal bowl became an object of ceremony. Then a second bowl appeared. And a third. The arrival of each new bowl was surrounded by dance that was joyful and ceremonial.
At times, the dancers themselves became spirits. Or they treated one another as deities, bowing to show their respect. More than once, they signaled incredible power by forming a circle, one that teemed with spiritual energy.
Fonseca’s piece created a world of women — with gossiping, cooking, cleaning, flirting and battling, often with a degree of multi-tasking involved. Dancers would chat with one another, knock off a few chores, jiggle their shoulders at someone in the distance and keep on with their busy day. As the show progressed, there was increasing urgency to these tasks, as if the women were propelled by unseen forces to keep working, pushing, helping their community to the point of personal exhaustion.
Twice in the show, Contempo Artistic Director Marciano Silva Dos Santos appeared amid the female cast. In one memorable scene, he performed a riveting duet with Alanna Morris-Van Tassel filled with tumbling, lifts and a masterful display of rhythmic movement. They were interrupted, though, by the disapproval of dancer Melissa Clark’s character, who shooed Dos Santos away.
The production’s weakest element was an overly New Agey score by José Ricardo Santos, mixing traditional Afro-Brazilian music with smooth jazz and nature sounds: birds chirping, thunderstorms, rushing water.
Fonseca succeeded overall in guiding the female dancers to find strength in one another, creating a sort of military for survival. The work’s most engaging moment came when this ferocious band of warriors moved in sync with arms waving, knees flying and bodies many feet from the ground. Ultimately, the piece was about the group’s bonds and the resilience found through that sisterhood.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.