Early on in his nomadic study of African dance, the choreographer Reggie Wilson had a revelation: An image came to him of Africa as a body. In the Northern regions, action seemed to be concentrated in the head and neck. Further down, in West Africa, it was all scything arms. Below that, the hips ruled, and in the South, stomping feet.
Almost immediately, counter-examples perforated the idea. If Wilson were an ethnographer, this would have been bad news. But he’s an artist—respectful of tradition and curious, yet ultimately a creator of contemporary work, as influenced by Merce Cunningham and Ohad Naharin as by African precedent. Seeing his idea fall apart as theory helped him realize he didn’t have to be a conservationist—research could inspire his art without restricting it.
Because he’s African-American, people often assume that his interest in Africa is a search for roots. It isn’t—or it isn’t only that. “I studied Graham, Cunningham, Pilates,” he says, over tea in his Prospect Heights apartment. “You think you’ve got it covered, how the body moves. But you go to an African village, and all the old women can raise one eyebrow and switch it to the other side, and move one ear around their heads twice. The body can’t do that, you think, but they can do it. There’s a genius within Africa for creating movement and structures to give it meaning.” That’s what Wilson is after.
The African genius for movement is one of the subjects of The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn, appearing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from December 16 to 19. “In African culture,” Wilson explains, “the dance is the text,” the repository of culture and a guide for living. If the Torah and the Bible and the Koran are Good Books, can there be a Good Dance? What would it mean to put pieces of it in a new context?
Helping Wilson and his Brooklyn-based Fist & Heel Performance Group ponder such questions is the Congolese choreographer Andréya Ouamba and his small, Senegal-based Compagnie 1er Temps. Researching in Dakar in 2002, Wilson was impressed with Ouamba’s work ethic, a shared fascination with mechanics, and a movement style that seemed familiar—” ‘limb-y’ is what I call it.” At a work-in-progress showing of The Good Dance last year, New York audiences could see what Wilson meant: Ouamba is a strikingly supple mover, a maker of shapes that compel interest and resonate ambiguously, disturbingly.
The collaboration was a long time coming and not without tension. Before their first joint production, a much-praised site-specific experiment on the steps of Lower Manhattan’s Custom House in 2007, Ouamba’s arrival was delayed by a leg injury. Remotely, he contributed improv exercises, a choreographic method that Wilson had long dismissed as inefficient and self-indulgent. Ouamba, once he arrived, was equally skeptical of Wilson’s ways—forethought patterns and segments he shuffles and reshuffles, trying to achieve the appearance of naturalness. Respecting each other and the final product each produces, the two men have since discovered common ground—though, as recently as a month ago, they had opposite ideas about how to light The Good Dance‘s ending.
How much they might have in common is another subtext of the dance. Raised in Milwaukee, Wilson traces his ancestry definitively to the Mississippi Delta in the early 1800s and, possibly, to the Congo River: “These two places are at the bottom of the bottom, politically, economically. Yet they are crucibles of cultural production with enormous influence. The Delta is the backbone of American culture, and that’s true of Congo in Africa—so much that you can’t put your finger on what comes out of Congo.”
In The Good Dance, this Mississippi-Congo thread is most obvious in the music, though the richer implications are the ones it’s harder to put that finger on (or put into words)—such as the plastic water bottles the performers are continually rearranging, gathering up, and kicking around. A woman balances one on her head. Wilson knocks it off. He tries to balance another. She knocks that one off. The meaning of such gestures is something Wilson leaves to viewers; for him, he says, “it’s just beautiful, well-organized bodies.” And it is—one thing Wilson knows is how to make a good dance. The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn, December 16–19, BAM Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, bam.org
FALL DANCE PICKS
Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People
Gutierrez is a passionate postmodernist, the kind who avails himself of postmodern methods to go for big emotions, slipping past the defenses elicited by more direct approaches. Last Meadow uses the image of James Dean, along with text and movement drawn from his films, to examine the inflation of expectations. Those expecting disillusionment shouldn’t be disappointed. Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, dtw.org
Lucy Guerin Inc.
September 16–20 and October 1–3
New York gets a double dose of the Melbourne-based choreographer and her company. First, at Baryshnikov Arts Center, Corridor gives its dancers instructions to follow, some impossible, between facing rows of viewers. Guerin’s crumpled style is most alive when amplified by crumpled paper coats. Props also inspire the best sections of the more affecting Structure and Sadness at Dance Theater Workshop. The collapse of a Melbourne bridge in 1970 and its emotional aftermath are ably evoked through a seesaw and the construction of a plywood set fated like dominoes. Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, bac.nyc.org; Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, dtw.org
‘Fall for Dance’
September 22–October 3
Still offering an unsurpassed breadth of dance at 10 bucks a seat, City Center’s annual sampler focuses its miscellany around a theme this time: the centenary of the Ballets Russes. Each of the five programs is punctuated with re-creations of works by Nijinsky, Nijinska, and Fokine, or re-imaginings, such as the wondrous Petrushka Suite of the puppeteer Basil Twist. Off-topic, the justly feted tanguero Gabriel Missé makes a debut, as does Savion Glover. City Center, 135 West 55th Street, nycitycenter.org
October 1–3 and 8–10
Earlier this year, the veteran dancemaker brought back a piece made fresh by long absence and topped it with a new one exercising his elegant intelligence in a less dated mode. That pattern might repeat itself with the revival of Sky Eye, a 1989 work combining Palestrina, Debussy, Ghanian drumming, and speaking in tongues, followed by the premiere of Cleave, which addresses the secularly spiritual space of St. Mark’s Church accompanied by Bach. Danspace Project, 131 East 10th Street, danspaceproject.org
American Ballet Theatre
Spanning a single week and confined to Avery Fisher Hall, ABT’s Fall Season is scaled back in every way except in living choreographic talent. Benjamin Millepied, a City Ballet dancer and promising craftsman, and Aszure Barton, a modern choreographer with a capaciously eccentric imagination, both offer premieres, as does the artist-in-residence, Alexei Ratmansky, the most consistently ravishing balletmaker now working. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, 140 West 65th Street, abt.org
When parts of this tap-dance homage to Charlie Parker premiered a few years back, the response of the great hoofer Jimmy Slyde was, “How dare you!” As in: “How dare you be so good!” In addition to tackling the saxophonist’s breakneck tempos and subdivided beats himself, Jason Samuels Smith choreographs routines of fiendish difficulty for a trio of ladies—Chloe Arnold, Michelle Dorrance, and the incomparable Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards—all able to handle the technical challenges while looking fine enough to evoke the Farrah Fawcett reference. The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, thekitchen.org
Armitage Gone! Dance
In the band Burkina Electric, a collaboration between Lukas Ligeti (son of György) and musicians from Burkina Faso, traditional rhythms become electronica and Europe meets Africa once again. That mash-up gets redoubled in Itutu, as the band interacts with the hyper-extended ballet of Karole Armitage. The onetime punk ballerina can be vitiatingly abstract, but it looks like this groove brings out her fun and sexy side. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org
Bill T. Jones/arnie zane Dance Company
In recent years, the controversalist has grown understated—and twice as effective. He hasn’t lost his earnestness or his ambition. As the first in a trio of works ruminating on Abraham Lincoln, Serenade/The Proposition is likely the messiest, a sketchbook crammed to the edges with ideas, text, and a live score. But some of those ideas are bound to be worth the mess. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 2009