Sunday, March 04, 2007

Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Reggie Wilson combines the traditions of African dance and music, the modern masters, the post-modern deconstructivists, and some all-important humor with his Fist & Heel Performance Group. The company made its San Francisco debut this past weekend with a performance that transcended words, illustrating what Wilson calls, “post-African/Neo-Hoodoo Modern Dance”. The two sold-out performances left the overwhelmed audience contemplating their own artistic journey as well as celebrating the cultural expedition in which they had just been immersed. The five-piece program introduced some extraordinary dancers to the Bay Area, but more specifically, it demonstrated Wilson’s insight into and comprehension of choreographic structure. By examining the first three works of the evening, his compositional mastery is revealed in the tools of repetition and transition.

The first piece, Jumping The Broom (1994), pointed to how a deliberate use of choreographic repetition can support the narrative and emphasize an event or a connection. This duet observed a stormy relationship through a series of vignettes, with each scene highlighting a different repetitive movement phrase. Some were clearly of a pedestrian nature and others were more stylized. Regardless of their character, these continuous gestures allowed the audience to focus on how the pair reacted to each other over time. There was always a constant, the repeated movement phrase, and at the same time, there something that was developing in the dancer’s relationship, which could be juxtaposed against the constant. What they were doing physically was not changing during each scene, but their attitude towards each other was shifting as they cycled through their movements. The purpose of the piece was to follow this union through the daily repetitive nature of life, and examine how they changed as individuals and as a couple on this journey. By utilizing repetition as the controlled element in the choreography, Wilson successfully made it an integral component in his storyline by allowing the human association to take center stage.

After the first duet, Wilson came onto the stage to talk to the audience about his work, his education, his heritage and his experiences. The conversation was laid-back, relaxed, and appeared unrehearsed. He was joking with the audience, posing questions, and telling stories. As he continued to speak, he slowly transitioned from just standing to performing a rhythmical stamping pattern with his feet. Following the introduction of that percussion, he also modified his voice into an audible breath accompaniment, interspersed with his monologue. As an audience member, the astonishing thing was that these transitions happened almost without noticing that they had occurred. One minute he was conversing in a regular manner and then his dialogue was suddenly a dance. It was almost like a magic trick, where the beginning was obvious and the result was apparent, but the transition between the two was a satisfying illusion.

Michael Kouakou performed the third work of the evening, a vibrantly energetic solo entitled, Tales from the Creek (1998). Wilson describes this piece as a “male solo of searching identity”, which was readily apparent in the work. It appeared autobiographical, possibly representing Wilson’s own ongoing search through his cross-cultural dance influences. To portray this personal exploration, Wilson fused and integrated multiple different dance genres into one piece. In the solo, the audience saw the following: Limon-inspired saggital and upper body curves, Graham bow and arrow arms in arabesque and tilts in 2nd position, jazz pas de bourees, gyrating Elvis hips, Cunningham pas de chats, the old-time Charleston, circular jogging from Judson Church, and flat-footed 2nd position jumps reminiscent of African dance. That is quite a list, and at first glance it might appear that to try and depict all of these genres would produce a halting, disjointed piece. Just the opposite was true. Again, Wilson used repetition so that his audience was sufficiently familiar with a particular movement form before he moved on to another one. In a very methodical way, he introduced a particular technique and then used repetition to solidify it. As well, the transitions again were seamless; almost invisible. It was very difficult to pinpoint where one step ended and another began. As a result of the repetition and transitions, the piece was solid and unified. The segments were like pieces of a puzzle that by themselves may not say very much, but when put together, produced a clear picture of the choreographer’s intent.

The only negative about this past weekend’s performance is that it was only a two-day run. Because both nights were sold-out, it seems fair to suggest that a longer engagement would have been well supported in the Bay Area. It was a shame that more people were not able to experience the power of this choreographer and his company. It was so exceptional that it is difficult to find adequate superlatives to praise this eminent work.

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