I wish the audience had been more robust for the Jan. 10 performance of Citizen from Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Overture Center’s Capitol Theater. Perhaps it was the icy roads, or not knowing what to expect of “postmodern” dance.
Wilson, a graduate of Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School, began his Brooklyn, New York-based company in 1989 and uses postmodern dance to explore the experiences and cultures of “Africans in the Americas.” This evening-length work raises issues of belonging, individuality, identity, acceptance and heritage.
The work is busy and bustling with energy. The audience can pick what to focus on: the superb dancers; the music (a collage of spirituals, stark silence and music from the African diaspora, which the dancers sometimes intentionally disregard by keeping their own internal rhythms); the extreme shifts in lighting; or the films and still images projected against fabric panels.
The work opens with the jarring song “Run, Nigger, Run,” and we’re introduced to four of the five company members. They each return to perform their own solos, which contain signature movements and gestures. There is sometimes overlap and interplay. There is always repetition. When the fifth dancer appears, her solo weaves in elements from the others before the five dance in unison. There are probably scholarly articles from researchers on why unison dance is so stirring and appealing (also currently reflected in the pop-culture phenomenon of “the movements” in the Netflix series The OA). After seeing each dancer in their own orbit or trajectory, when they do move together as one it has a profound impact.
Each dancer brings extraordinary skill and grace. Yeman Brown moves with smooth assurance, and each time his leg flies up sky-high before swooping back down, it feels like a surprise. Each time he performed the seemingly throw-away gesture of rippling the fingers of his right hand with his head tossed back, or dropping into a squat while coolly gazing out into the audience, surveying the scene, I wanted to let out a sigh of satisfaction.
Gabriela Silva, a new company member, performs a series of flat-backed arabesques, punctuated by a quick pose with her arms framing her head like a showgirl to music from Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke. She often breaks out into more elegant versions of basketball shuffles or football agility drill moves.
Clement Mensah’s solo alternates between bouncy hopscotch-y steps and broader sweeping movements that reveal his strength and control. Raja Feather Kelly emerges for the start of his solo in profile, his pelvis circling relentlessly. Kelly needs, and has, the stamina of an ultra-marathoner. Finally, Annie Wang, her head shaved like a swimmer angling for an aerodynamic edge, devours the space on the stage, arms like arrows piercing the air.
The highly repetitive choreography is often punctuated with gestures or tasks ranging from the startling — the dancers lifting one arm high above their heads like a noose with their bodies hanging below — to the mundane: Mensah repeatedly removing his long socks or Wang rolling up the legs of her jumpsuit. If the performers weren’t all excellent practitioners of Wilson’s work, this could read as contrived, but that isn’t case.
Wilson is known for conducting extensive research (and he has released a suggested reading list for this work), and in a recent New York Times profile he shared that the path to Citizen began when he came across the painting Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley, Ex-Representative of the Colonies, which is housed at Versailles. The 1797 image of this slave from Senegal who purchased his freedom and went on to represent Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the National Convention of France appears fleetingly in Citizen, but Belley’s grand style and regal bearing is echoed in some of Enver Chakartash’s black-and-white costumes, including the scarf tied around Brown’s neck and the fluttering fabric around Kelly’s waist.
I try to avoid post-performance talkbacks because they can be annoying, and I don’t want them to influence my review, but in this case I stuck around because I wanted to see and hear more from Wilson and his company. Wilson invited the audience to their own interpretations and welcomed them to ponder what moved them most. For me, I’ll reflect on the importance of holding onto your own identity, and I’ll celebrate that a choreographer from Wisconsin has carved out his own important niche in larger stages around the world.