National Theatre, Kampala played host to Batalo East Foundation’s 2023 dance offering, Nambi, the African Sheildmaiden. From the way the theatre foyer was designed, the grass thatch, the imaginery African mediaval, it was clear it was more than a dance show.
African contemporary art has hardly ever asked questions about its own mythology. Thus, even when stories have been passed down from one generation to the next, artistic interpretations of these folks and what they could represent has been minimal.
Most of the times art simply retells what people already know in a dramatised way or any medium of choice. Which probably made the Batalo East Foundation’s 2023 dance offering such a monumental one.
Nambi, the African Sheildmaiden, is a show inspired by African strong women leaders and others simply inspirational. The dance production seems to use their influence to celebrate all women regardless of their position in the society.
Some parts in Nambi celebrate leadership while other parts of the show celebrate humanity such as motherhood.
But none of these is actually spoken, which makes Lillian Nabaggala, the show director’s vision, a wild one. Most dance shows tend to use the aid of spoken word, mixed media such as video or graphics to get their message across.
Not Nambi, the production entirely depends on movement to tackle hard topics, excite and get its audience emotional at the same time.
Starring performers Nabaggala Lilian Maximilian, Nakato Rachael, Natabi Sarah, Namboze Haula, and Nakawesa Shanta, the five women deliver a breathtaking dance routine that mixes a bit of Uganda’s ethno traditional moves with bits of street, Nabaggala’s forte that umbrellas a number of hip hop moves such as house and breakdancing.
The way the choreography of the day marries all these moves into one production of one hour is what makes Nambi a spectacle.
But what is Nambi the African Shield maiden? It’s a full length dance production that celebrates an everyday woman, who Nabaggala in her submissions refers to as a queen without a crown.
She says this could be an everyday woman in the community, the kind that has a lot of power that her word on many issues is final.
Since she says most of these women are queens without crowns, the imagery of this crown was evident in the one hour performance, gestured at the different levels of the performance.
Through the dancers, through the moves, Nambi tells us that most women ace life, regardless of the acclaim or the lack of it.
Initially conceptualised in 2017, Nambi was first presented as a 25 minute production. Because of its intense nature and meticulous costume at the time, it became a hit with audiences that it hit the road to the Ade Festival in Ethiopia and later The East African Nights of Tollerence in Rwanda.
By 2019, since the world was feeling good about being unapologetically African, thanks to the motion film Black Panther, the production was an eye candy at the annual Batalo East Dance Fest that was held at Ndere Centre in Kampala.
Since then, the plans to have the show as an independent feature theatre production were in motion.
Draped in heavy white and red clothing, similar to those worn by nuns in movies, the show opened with a synchronised routine featuring all the five performers.
Dancing to sounds chosen and produced for the show, they were neither electronic or contemporary African, they were in a middle ground curated by Izaya. Once in a while, they took turns to perform solos and it’s at the time that the best of them shone the most. It’s the solos that got most of them in their comfort zones.
For a show celebrating women, the performers also had a daunting task of addressing some stereotypes – women are always fighting each other. And yes, there were a few battles on stage.
But at the end of it all, Nambi is a production that wrapped perfection around itself from choreography, stage design by Sheila Nakitende and sound and lighting by ATS.
The production made you feel something and for at least one hour, they danced, locked, battled on rock, EDM and bits of Latina, yet not in any of the transitions did they lose the attention of their audience.
Andrew is an Arts and Culture reporter, a trained theater, music and film critic. In the past, he has served as a jury member for various film festivals and is one of the co-founders of African Movie Night Kampala and founder of the annual Nteredde Documentary Showcase.