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DANCIN' FEATS A kinesthetic anthropologist and his movement specialists
by Joanna Furnans
2017-09-27

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Next month, the Brooklyn-based Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group will return to the Dance Center of Columbia College to perform "CITIZEN" ( Oct. 12-14, 7:30 p.m., 1306 S. Michigan Ave. ).

The predominant theme examined in this work centers around questions of "belonging" with the promotional tagline asking, "What does it mean to belong?" and "What does it mean NOT to want to belong?" Although this line of questioning is intentionally provocative and specific, focusing on these questions as a way to decipher the meaning of the dance would be an unnecessary over-simplification. Instead, Wilson would rather audiences show up and let the dance speak for itself on its own terms.

That is not to say that Wilson and his collaborators couldn't talk at length about the personal, social and historical investigation that has gone into the process of making this piece. On the contrary Wilson, one of the most well-regarded, award-winning contemporary choreographers of our time, is impressively well spoken and rigorous in his commitment to contextual research. So much so that "CITIZEN" comes with a suggested reading list.

Still, Wilson is reluctant to place too much emphasis on the written word especially when it is offered as a form in higher esteem than dance. At one point in his career he went so far as to proclaim that he "hated words" but eventually realized that the real issue was that he "hated how much more value we put on the written word than we do on dancing." And, Wilson continued, "as a dance artist, as a kinesthetic anthropologist, to have that be where so much weight is put on the work. It just functions completely differently." Instead, he advocates for an understanding of and appreciation for "what dance can do on its own terms rather than borrowing terms from other mediums to validate ourselves."

Then why have a reading list? Wilson and his company experience a robust touring schedule and there is no delusion about the "problem" of cultural translation from one corner of the globe to the next. In fact, Wilson theorizes that his ability to assert his creative vision is really a matter of percentages with his artistic voice potentially only influencing a third of the entire creative picture. "Thirty-forty percent of the piece is what I do," Wilson said. "Another 30-40 percent is what the dancers do. The remaining is what the audience does. It's a substantial amount that the viewer is doing."

Therefore, Wilson added, "Performing the piece in New York versus performing it in the bay area; everyone's agenda is completely different about going to see contemporary dance and paying for a ticket. Multiply that by taking the same little piece to Trinidad and Tobago where the class of people who are going to see dance are looking for something completely different. Then change it again when you go to Zimbabwe, or Germany or Korea and it's just like, how could I possibly think that these individuals who are coming to look at the bodies that I have organized on stage, are going to be getting the same things? They don't know the same history, they don't know the same physical cues; they don't even know the same dance traditions."

With such a multitude of perspectives inherent in these circumstances, Wilson provides literature to help position the work in its intended cultural foundations. Interpretation is okay, but Wilson certainly has an agenda of his own when he sets out to create a work. And while meaning can be extrapolated from the combination of texts and contexts, Wilson thinks it is better to consider what the dance and the dancers are actually doing rather than what it might conceptually mean.

So, what are the dancers doing? Raja Feather Kelly is a dancer in the company as well as the company manager and Wilson's personal assistant, roles that give him plenty of insight into Wilson's particular artistry. Sharing a frequently used rehearsal shorthand, "up is up; down is down," Kelly explained how this phrase functions as both metaphor and specific movement instruction within the creative process:

"In the body, up is only up, down is only down, left is only left and right is only right. In the rehearsal process he doesn't demonstrate a phrase that we learn by watching his body, he verbally tells us what to do: go that way, turn that way, bring your pelvis that way, put you hand up, put your hand down. So understanding that specificity of direction and weight and force … there is a state of mind you have to be in in order to listen and not interpret, you know? We are really movement specialists. We specialize in going up, down, left and right and learning rhythm. ... That's our job," Kelly said.

One might assume that these basic physical instructions would yield a rather uninventive movement vocabulary, however this is precisely where the unique qualities of each dancer comes in to play and makes a profound impact on the outcome of the work as a whole. Kelly said, "My choices are based on my perspective, my desires, my history and my experience of being a human being. Who we are as human beings is what is being used to propel the work forward. So however we are dealing with that in our day-to-day lives, we are also dealing with that in the rehearsal room. My history compared to someone else's history makes us make different decisions about how to get across the floor, how to solve a problem, how to be quick, how to negotiate space and how to negotiate people."

Given that the possibilities for individual expression are so vast, it is easy to see how audiences might short change themselves by relying simply on program notes, reading lists and preview articles to glean the meaning of a work. It's best to just show up, with all of our own personal histories, and witness the unfolding of a new work by this particular company of powerful citizens.

More information and tickets at the link: www.Colum.Edu/DanceCenterPresents.com .


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