Parallels writer-in-residence Carl Paris on Dean Moss and Reggie Wilson
April 5, 2012
Thoughts on performances by Dean Moss and Reggie Wilson (March 8-10, 2012)
For both their similarities and differences, it was a good idea to pair Dean Moss and Reggie Wilson up in a program title “New Works” as part of the PLATFORMS 2012: Parallels series. Both men are successful postmodern choreographers who emphasize concept and process in their work. And, although their aesthetic approaches are very different, both men bring unique perspectives to dance as a way of exploring and contesting boundaries of tradition, representation and expectation in ways that can, but not always, reflect their African American identity. These qualities align with questions posed by the project’s curator, Ishmael Houston-Jones, around the notion of black dance and how black postmodern choreographers connect, or not connect to that notion.
Reggie Wilson (Artistic Director of Fist and Heel Performance Group) draws on African and African American history, movement and cultural expressions. He describes this approach as “post-African/Neo-Hoo Doo modern dance,” reflecting his anthropological research into the dance and cultures of the American South, the Caribbean, and various African countries. As a fan of Wilson’s playful, sometimes ironic and sometimes intentionally indecipherable titles, I find that they often provide useful insights into his creative process. Such is the case with his collaboration with dance maker Souleymane Badolo from Burkino Faso in the twenty-minute work, Solo’s Solo/”Basic III” (Introduction gestures)-now a study that sometimes goes low (so) and too deep (with changes in direction). According to Wilson, this new work draws on old material, including his signature solo Introduction(1996), which starts as a kind of lecture-demonstration about his dance studies across the African Diaspora and builds into a spell-binding rhythmic tour de force based on the ring shout. But more specifically, here, Solo’s Solo reads like a kind of self-reflexive exploration into the permanence and impermanence of identity, expectancy, and context.
Badolo, who is an expressive and muscular dancer, enters the space walking hurriedly with a large gym bag on his shoulder while African music by Lavantille Rhythmic Section plays full blast. Does he dance to that irresistible music? No! He dumps out a mountain of clothes and tries on different combinations, as if attempting to figure out what to wear and for what purpose; and the driving music helps convey that sense of urgency. Ultimately, he settles on the flashiest outfit of all: red lamé pants and a beautifully embroidered black and white vest. Now moving in silence, Badolo combines every-day gestures–like rolling up his sleeves or pant legs, striking thinking poses, and slapping his tongue multiple times–with full-out African-inflected dance sequences. Along the way, he increases his physical and dramatic intensity until at a high-energy point in one corner of the space, he reverses his spatial trajectory as he repeats movement sequences, steadily returning back toward the gym bag where he finishes rolling up his pant legs again. Combined, these elements reveal an intelligent structuring, proportionality and investigation, which, although in some ways not fully resolved dance wise, convey intriguing new ways of feeling and saying things.
Dean Moss (Artistic Director of Gametophyte) is much more a multimedia conceptual choreographer and much less direct about the connections he makes with his original sources of inspiration. In collaboration with visual artist Laylah Ali, his some elements raw, re-purposed, in progress is, according to the program note, about “the assemblage of raw ideas examining obsession, failure and humiliation as part of the inheritances of the [white] radical abolitionist John Brown.” But that is as far as Moss wants us to go in terms of making any literal connections to Brown’s ill-fated slave rebellion in 1859. Indeed, before the performance, Moss announced that the piece is about John Brown, only because he says so, and that for now he wants us to think about it as a work in progress that “fuses known narratives with things that are not as easily articulated about the polarizing struggles of the 1850s, and their parallels to now.”
The piece is set to a tonal sound score by Stephen Vitiello and the props, by Moss himself, consist of several chairs and a huge collection of black poster-sized panels with aluminum foil pasted on one side to look like mirrors. The five dancers were Kacie Chung, Pedro Jiménez, Aaron Mattocks, Cassie Mey, and Sari Nordman who brought beauty and elegance to their task. The three female dancers begin with slow modern dance/classical dance movements, sometimes following each other or coordinating with each other. This is interrupted by the entrance of the two males (Jiménez and Mattocks), triggering a frenzied clash of aggressive pushing, pulling, screaming, and throwing panels, mainly onto Mattocks as the central figure of obsession. Gender and race might have some significance here, but I cannot be sure. The white women seem to provide the role of everyday people, the broader society perhaps, while Jiménez’s brown male body acts belligerently against Mattocks’ white male body. Whatever the implications, Mattocks gets pushed around by everyone with the panels in their mouths. He gets stomped on and sat on underneath the pile of panels as the women coo, seemingly in mock sympathy to his plight. He is invited to stare at himself in the aluminum panel, but does not seem particularly committed to that. This gets juxtaposed against occasional lifts with the smallest dancer (Sari Norman) and technical dancing by the three women. Is it Moss’s intention that his explorations of rawness, failure, obsession, and humiliation culminate in abstracted exercises of violence and alienation? Again, I am not quite sure. But the work provided a strong conceptual framework that made me want to see where Moss goes with it.
In thinking about these new works by Wilson and Moss within the context of Parallels, I am reminded of Judith Lynn Hanna’s observation that postmodern dance offers a certain problem-solving discourse that is crucial to the performer-audience spectator relationship (1983, 101). This can also have specific racial and socio-cultural implications that tell us a lot, not only about the choreographer, but also about how we individually and collectively process what we see. That to me is a primary function of art; and, from that standpoint: unless we subscribe to some pure and ideal universality, there is nothing wrong with making racial and socio-cultural connections.
Hanna, Judith Lynne. (1983). The Performer-Audience Connection: Emotion To Metaphor in Dance and Society.Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.