D.C. DanceWatcher

Dancing While a Black Man

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 25, 2017

 

Triggered
Helanius J. Wilkins
Terrace Theater, Millennium Stage
The Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
December 3, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Helanius bon coeur

Well before “Black Lives Matter,” the hatch tag and the movement, former Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Helanius J. Wilkins was making work that unapologetically demonstrated that black lives matter. It’s been 16 years since he founded his all-male, all-African-American company Edgeworks Dance Theater in the District. Created during an era when especially young black men in urban areas were besieged — and struggling for recognition, for respect, for racial equity, amid drug, gang and police violence, Edgeworks (2001-2014) pulled back the curtain on ignored aspects of black men — gentleness, graceful, loving, softness, intellect — that the press often neglected.

Triggered, a retrospective culled from a handful of Wilkins’ works, reveals the obvious: not much has changed in how black men are regarded in America today and back in 2001, when he began his choreographic explorations. Black male identity has long been Wilkins’ wheelhouse. Among his works, Risk (2001), Fearless (2003), the collaborative Extreme Measures (2004), Cold Case (2005) and Trigger (2011) all deal with issues relevant to black masculinity. His works traverse headline-blaring topics like gang violence, police brutality to less remarked on issues like homosexuality, homelessness, and identity politics. Sometimes he pushes back against the expectations audiences have of black men and black male bodies. He’ll show us two men in a delicately performed duet, their easy grace and lightness upending the stereotypical way black men are portrayed in the media.

Case in point is the three-part “A Love Crisis,” from 2006. The piece opens the program with Wilkins, clad in a loose silky white shirt, as he circles his torso with a Doris Humphreyesque breathiness and calm, his arms unfolding like freshly laundered sheets with an easygoing flow and waft. There’s a prettiness and lightness to his approach here that belies the lyrics of the Me’shell N’degeocello song “Wasted Time … On Luvin’ U”:  a bitter ballad of heartbreak, played out by Wilkins’ exit backwards his fist lowering in retreat. In “Bitter,” D.C.-area dancer Reginald Cole, bare-chested and muscular, continues the brokenhearted theme, which brings him into the floor, his head on a pillow of his hands, a collapse after his gentle strength has been spent. Wilkins returns for the final section, “To the One I … With Love,” featuring jazz singer Diana Krall crooning, “I can drink a case o you and still be on my feet.” Here he shows his balletic side, with arabesque turns imbued with the lushness of a ballerina. As ordinary as the arabesque image is on a dance stage, on a black male modern dancer it reads with a jolt, a bit of defiance even amid its loveliness. The forlorn ending of “A Love Crisis” is a study in loneliness, as Wilkins gives in, a physical retreat for his emotional ardor.

From the evening-length piece Cold Case, the duet “The Letter” includes a spoken missive from a father to his newborn son. It’s an eloquent and hopeful narration read on tape by Ayden Elder. “Dear Son, I write this letter in the hope that when you’re old enough to change the world the world will have changed.” It includes an ethical will of sorts — “You are a black man in America. You are in a position to be feared and loved. You are powerful and will have an opportunity to strike a blow against negative images …” — from a father who may not see his son grow to maturity. The searing words of the monologue overshadow the movement material, with its mixture of casual pedestrian feel and its muscular athleticism. An excerpt from Trigger, “Warning” posits the rejoinder to the letter-writing father’s hope to see a powerful, black son emerge into adulthood. Wilkins hasn’t often choreographed for women. Stacie Cannon imparts a portrait of a black everywoman. Seated in a chair, Cannon performs amid clamor of sirens, the theme song to a popular cop reality series and news reports of violence in the black community. Weighted and slumped, she exerts effort in revealing the demoralization and pain of women waiting for word on their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Her elbow cocked as if she holds a burning cigarette, Cannon’s shoulders roll forward, her head drops, bereft. “Warning” raises the unspoken question: who are the hidden victims of violence?  

“Media’s Got Me All Figured Out: Reloaded” provides a bit of a release from Wilkins’ older works, with their focus on race, crime, and violence. The trio, accompanied by recorded interviews and sound bites, a counterpoint to the broad brush strokes of the choreography, with its flinging arms, athletic jumps and push-up planks. The two men, Aaron Allen Jr. and Keith Haynes at one point catch Arneshia Williams. Later, the image is reversed, she’s holding up one of the men, collapsed in her arms. Among the aphorisms and epigrams shared in the voiceover, the statement “Racism is real. Racism is not dead” precedes a sobering roll call of names of black men who have been killed in police violence in recent years. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Freddy Gray. And on. And on. And on.

The 50-minute program, presented in the recently renovated Terrace Theater rather than the less accommodating Millennium Stage in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center due to activities for the Kennedy Center Honors, concluded with a snippet from a work in progress. The excerpt from A Bon Coeur, the full work premieres in 2018, glimpses at the artist’s roots in New Orleans. A Louisiana native, Wilkins pays tribute in color, light, sound and movement to is beloved forbears and their city and its rich cultural heritage. But he’s not immune to the turmoil of the region and to its recent challenges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Featuring a text written and spoken by Wilkins and a video portrait of the city, shown through a video window projected on the stage backdrop, provides striking imagery and language. Beginning with stormy weather and a bouncy Second Line New Orleans brass band, the quickly shifting collage of video clips includes parades, gospel choirs, rainy streets and backyards. Wilkins choreography recalls his earlier athleticism, powerful and graceful, the choreography serves as a supplement, rather than the main course. He becomes a supplicant with prayerful hand gestures and outstretched arms, trembling, falling prostrate on the ground.

Later he pulls himself to standing, reaching, palms beseeching. Later he pushes forward, his arms suggesting a breast stroke, swimming against an invisible current. “I was raised in you,” Wilkins says, of his beloved New Orleans. A Bon Coeur is his paean to a city that has faced adversity but moves forward, a vibrant artistic and cultural gumbo. Interestingly, this latest work, is a fitting addition to Wilkins body of work. He spent two decades wrestling with identity, public and private, of black men. Now in Au Bon Coeur he digs deep into his roots. In all, though, Wilkins doesn’t allow his audience to forget, even for a moment, that experiences of black men in an America remain far from equal to their white peers.

Photo: Angelisa Gillyard
December 17, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

 

 

War and (Hope for) Peace

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Performance art, World dance by lisatraiger on September 21, 2015

Eleven Reflections on September
Written and directed by Andrea Assaf
Choreography by Donna Mejia
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
Washington, D.C.
September 15, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Donna_Mejia 11 reflectionsOne of the most powerful antiwar statements of the 20th century remains Pablo Picasso’s stunning 1937 oil on canvas, “Guernica.” The painting conveys from its large canvas the atrocities, pain and suffering of war in graphic details of newspaper photojournalism, shifted through the surrealist lens of Picasso’s cubism.

“Eleven Reflections on September,” three-dimensionalizes the message of Picasso’s Guernica, using poetry, spoken word, original music, video and world fusion dance to bring this message that war garners no true victories into the 21st century. “Eleven Reflections” – part of the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival taking place this fall in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs – draws on the Arab-American experience both pre- and post-September 11. The result is a searing artistic statement of the troubling pain and displacement that occurs when the known world is over taken by the unknown, the uncertainties, the indignities and inequities that happen in war and uprising.

Beginning with a haunting violin and low call of the didgeridoo, flames flickering on the backdrop, poet and spoken world artist Andrea Assaf’s words tumble out. She begins at that brilliant and horrible moment in 2001 when the world changed. The planes and towers were down. Chaos reigned in lower Manhattan and Assaf speaks presciently: “everything that came before was over.” Now there’s a line, a division, a before and after, a moment where Americans in particular realized their vulnerability on the world stage. She speaks of the “smoke of memory” as video captures horrific images of twisted, collapsed buildings.

When black-clad dancer Donna Mejia enters, shoulders bare, skirt full and flounced, hair twisted into a topknot, the violin, played by Eylem Basaldi, shimmers, the doumbek played by Natalia Perlaza provides the syncopated beat. And Mejia’s head and shoulders roll, undulating to the beauty of the sound, replicating the wafting smoke alluded to earlier rising into the brilliant, blue sky on that once-gorgeous then horrific September day. Assaf talks of fruit trees, particularly the emblematic olive which takes generations before its pleasant yield can be harvested. Mejia’s arms reach like the branches, then reshape themselves into sharp-elbowed corners – trees cut down, towers downed, souls sacrificed in a split second of insanity and inhumanity.

Choreographically Mejia helps embellish Assaf’s text just as calligraphers often embelish Arabic script into curvilinear designs with graceful arabesques linking and winding into letters, words and verses. In a melding of dance forms referred to as transnational fusion, she draws upon tradtions from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and western modern dance. As letters and words collect on the backdrop in Pramila Vasudevan’s video, Mejia has gathered hip rols and shimmies, arm undulations and shoulder rolls, convulsive contractions of the midsection and torso and deep lunges, her supple body circling above.

Assaf brings forth a basin of water infused with bunches of mint – an act of purifying, of hospitality, of offering. Mejia seems to expand to a haunting wordless chanted call let forth by Luna, then later, she plants both feet firmly into the ground, her solid wise stance an act of ownership and defiance as images of uprising populate the backdrop. The reflections, drawing from the specificity of Assaf’s experiences reified in poetry form the basis for a soul-piercing experiences. While September 11 has had life-changing effects on many aspects of our society and government, “Eleven Reflections” personalizes the act of communal remembrance and also illuminates the specificity of the Arab-American experience.

Mejia’s choreographic contribution to the work allows the words to resonate more fully, underlining and highlighting moments when Assaf’s poetry spurts forward, quickly relentlessly. The dance moments, a shoulder tremor, a head roll, arms twisting, snaking, like the wrapped coils of Mejia’s hair. The elemental mix of these complex dance genres, and the richly evocative world music forms serve to broaden and deepen the viewer’s experience. “Eleven Reflections” with its richly collaborative contributions of singular women’s voices illuminates the antiwar message at the root of Assaf’s poetry. As the poet, clad in black, forges forward, leaving the stage, Mejia takes over. Suddenly her hips tremor and erupt at breakneck speed, the jingling coins of her hip belt punctuating the drum and violin. It’s not merely celebratory, but, more importantly, it’s life affirming.

Picasso overwhelmed viewers with the horrors of war in his politically driven “Guernica.” Assaf’s canvas is equally large and she is not immune to the politics of this moment in time and the resonance of September 11, concomitant uprisings and crises occurring in the Middle East, and beyond. But she and her collaborators don’t wallow in the destruction. In their 21st century multimedia “Guernica,” they recount war’s horrors and the politics of hate, but then push onward, beyond. Amid the death, destruction, protests, and prejudices visited in the piece, blood still courses through veins, muscles still flex, hearts still beat, poetry still rings out. Life, even in the unrelenting grip of war and destruction, goes on and that is the true message “Eleven Reflections on September” leaves viewers to ponder.
Photo: Donna Mejia, by Jen Diaz, courtesy La MaMa
© 2015 Lisa Traiger September 18, 2015