By Carrie Stern
I know, I know, critical writing is supposed to be somehow neutral. But let’s be real, if you’ve lived a life, how likely is it that you can truly be unbiased?
The critical writer hopes tobe balanced, and fair, certainly, but to be dispassionate is not in my powers. I can’t help it; some art speaks to me in ways that have nothing to do with my analytical self. Sometimes it’s visceral, sometimes it’s ideas or physical concepts, but whatever it is, it’s personal. And so it is for me with dances by choreographer Reggie Wilson.
Wilson, who lives in Brooklyn, founded his company, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, in 1989. His choreography draws widely and intricately on ideas and techniques developed in post-modern dance, employing a vocabulary of movement that takes inspiration from sources as varied as the Spiritual Baptists, the Shangoists in Trinidad and Tobago, secular and religious life in the Mississippi Delta, and, most recently, his own travels through the African continent. Wilson calls his work “post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dances.”
In the first two weeks of March, Wilson looked back on his own career with a concert at New York Live Arts, and also looked forward with a new, collaborative work, created with contemporary choreographer and dancer Souleymane Badolo, of Burkina Faso, Africa. The performance was at the venue Danspace Project, as part of “PLATFORM 2012: Parallels,” a show curated by choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones.
(“PLATFORM” is a series that invites guest artists to organize performances and activities that contextualize the performances. I’ll discuss Houston-Jones’ overriding premise in the next column.)
Wilson and Badolo are both concerned with process. In this recent collaborative piece, the two investigated the possibilities that arise when common techniques and priorities are reversed.
As their program notes say: “Abandoning improvisation, movement-invention, character and emotion… focusing [instead] on order, rhythm, patterns, texture, comparison and relationship,” they are “looking to see when, if and how narrative, theme or story arise from form and structure” and “what can be gained from…purely exploring…without an emphasis on…arriving at a result.”
The outcome, this time, was a work titled, “Solo’s Solo/'Basic III' (INTRODUCTION gestures) — now a study that sometimes goes low (so) and too deep (with changes in direction).”
Entering in street clothes, Badolo walked to the small stage that occupies one end of the performance space with a bag slung over his shoulder.
Very loud bells, whistles and intense drumming by the Laventille Rhythm Section filled the space. Stripping to his shorts, Badolo pulled a wardrobe from the bag, trying things on, flinging each piece away as if looking for the right skin. Finally he chose hot pink lamé carnivalesque pants and a brown vest with intricate white embroidery and white fuzzy trim. The costume matters; if the bare space is the blank canvas against which Badolo’s movement will be read, then the costume immediately characterizes him.
The music then stopped. In the silence, Badolo slapped his feet, the sound important. His head bobbled like a dashboard doll, arms reached to cross each other, then quickly pulled back, activated by a jerking shoulder. They spread wide. Slow hand gestures — fists opening, fingers pointing — evoked the ethereal pantomimes of a meditating yogi. Leg kicks were followed by weighted arms swinging and bending like wild pendulums. Badolo’s feet rolled over the ground and curled against the floor as his body rapidly explored emerging paths. He breathed heavily, audibly. As he responded to impetuses the audience couldn’t see, he invited us to watch his investigation.
As Badolo performs, without pandering or explaining, he asks an audience to take the ride with him, to see where it goes, to find their own narratives. I can’t yet read the narrative I found, but its intelligence is undeniable; I wanted to follow.
Wilson’s “theREVISITATION” is described by New York Live Arts as “the simple and intricate exercise of looking back to look forward.” A pastiche, Wilson crafted this “re-visit,” as opposed to a reconstruction, by cutting, pasting and merging old work with new ideas and perspectives.
Opening with an unaccompanied suite of traditional music from the African Diaspora, sung in harmony and monophony, Wilson and his longtime associates Rhetta Aleong and Lawrence Harding trace their origins through religious music to field hollers. These personal, musical histories make evident the intricacy of Africana in the Americas; the correspondences and distinctions of their songs, drawn from their different cultures, writes small this larger history.
This complexity of traditions within black culture and society is an abiding presence in Wilson’s work. His groundbreaking 1996 solo, “Introduction,” continues the story. What started as a lecture, an autobiographical telling of his life and travels through religious rituals and music from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, almost imperceptibly gained rhythm and speed as he lost speech. Stamping and tapping, his arms swung slowly into play. Fists added to the percussive rhythms of his aspirated breathing. As memory takes over his body, the verbal is made visual.
“the duet” alternated pairings of tall Paul Hamilton with the equally tall Raja Kelly and with tiny Anna Schön. Schön, who performed the night I attended, is a bundle of quick-fire muscles exploding from deep, folded movements into perfectly held extensions. Hamilton was luxurious by comparison, stretching his long limbs, filling the space, acting, somehow, as the outer skin to Schön’s center. Danced with a tall woman the work would resonate differently. A reworking of material from over 20 years, this piece was the most abstract of the evening, a nearly formal study of the relationship of two bodies in space and the subtexts that emerge.
“Big BRICK: a man’s piece,” dated 2002, presages some of the movement-scape of Wilson’s most recent work. The vocal trio’s accompaniment — non-verbal call and response, spirituals, the longing chant “Ah, Rosie” and the children’s rhythmic chant “Miss Brown” — as well as Epperson’s costumes, suggest themes of male camaraderie. The dancers stride across the floor with legs opening, swinging into wide arcs as they pass through arabesques. Heavy-footed ground-slaps are followed by tiny, delicate, heel-clicking walks. Loose-limbed, loping jumps appear effortless. Pushing, sometimes gently, sometimes firmly, their momentum carries them into circles bypassing each other. They shake hands and pull each other over arms akimbo in emphasis. One of my favorite moments passes quickly as one man waltzes with his friend, guiding him from the back through the steps as another leapfrogs to land on his fellow’s back. “Big BRICK” is tender, brotherly and timeless.
Dean Moss’s very different “some elements raw, re-purposed, in-progress” was the other half of the “Parallels” evening. Part of his current examination with painter Laylah Ali of the inheritance of abolitionist John Brown, the work is intriguing if somewhat unfocused and disconnected. It includes striking Cassie May in a slow, turning solo, looking like no one so much as Anna Pavolova in “The Dying Swan.” The piece moves from May’s quietude to near-manic running, angry shoving, shouting at the audience, and a pile of tossed mirrored cardboards that eventually litters the ground, gathered again and used to bludgeon other dancers. Where John Brown emerges in this is not yet clear to me. But like Badolo/Wilson’s search for a narrative that emerges from moving, so Dean seems to be searching for a way to tell an impressionistic, as opposed to linear, history.
Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group will perform a new work during the BAM Next Wave Festival in 2013.
Souleymane Badolo will perform as part of E-moves, produced at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, April 21 and 28.
Dean Moss/gametophyte continues to develop the tentatively titled, “johnbrown” with painter Laylah Ali. The completed work is expected to premiere in the fall/spring seasons of 2013/14.