By Sharon Hoyer
When Reggie Wilson answers a question he tries to hand you a complete story, traveling down side streets, pausing in front of windows and cracks in the pavement, gathering all the details he can carry. When asked the origin of his current project, a collaboration with Senegal-based choreographer Andréya Ouamba entitled “The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn,” he begins with his family roots in Alabama and Mississippi, follows them up to Milwaukee where he was raised, takes it to New York where he currently resides (being sure to mention influential colleagues like Ohad Naharin), then sets out across the globe, talking about his research and travel in the Caribbean, West Africa and Central and South Africa. When asked if there was a story behind the name of his company he began, “there’s a story. There are lots of stories.”
Fitting then that Wilson should cast his raft on two very long and storied rivers—the Mississippi and the Congo—and follow their tributaries where they might carry him, doing his best to notice similarities along the way. Most immediately notable: both have violent histories and both nurtured cultures that spread through their respective continents. First and foremost, the music. Wilson says, “It’s strange that both of those places had dark histories, but how much impact the music had that came out of those regions. The Mississippi Delta blues, gospel music and jazz from New Orleans all the way up to Chicago and Minneapolis… I even put in the relationship to the Detroit motor city sound. The Congolese music has that same kind of reach and impact. You think of rumba as coming from Cuba, but it came from the Congolese slaves and traces back to Angola and Central Africa. That’s what got me started thinking about the central African impact. It didn’t matter if I was in a nightclub in Johannesburg or Dakar or Morocco or Nairobi; by the end of the evening everyone was playing the Central African music.”
The subjects investigated in “The Good Dance” are, like Wilson’s trains of thought, layered, overlapping, divergent. He mentions three areas of exploration: his and Congolese-born Ouamba’s personal histories and the histories of their six other dancers (only two of whom hail from the same country); the juxtaposition of the two mighty rivers; and religious practices that come out of these regions. Not narrow subjects and Wilson, a self-described postmodernist with the attendant awareness of the difficulties of language, gets frustrated at having to give it all words.
“As a movement artist, the primary way you’re trying to communicate is with your body, but you have to come up with verbiage to get money to make the piece. You have to talk to or send a proposal to supporters to convince them that this is a piece they’d be interested in. You’re probably going to talk to a reporter…”
“But, you know, I’ve got to struggle to find words to tell you about this thing so you can write words to convince people to come see the thing. And maybe someone from the New York Times comes to see the piece and twenty, thirty years later, that’s what remains. That’s really frustrating. I’ve been traveling in different parts of the globe where the body and movement are central. I thought, can you imagine if I was a novelist and I had to find a choreographer to come up with a dance to let people know they should buy my book?”
That story behind the name Fist & Heel Performance Group starts in the antebellum south, when a northern visitor to a plantation saw slaves doing the ring shout: clapping and stomping as part of their Christian ritual. Her southern guide told her not to be concerned; it was only “fist and heel worshipping.”
“I was looking at the ring shout as an African retention, as a social practice that helped them,” Wilson says. “It’s been part of my practice of reclaiming something the dominant culture tries to convince us is negative that is actually quite positive.”
At the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 South Michigan, (312)369-8330, March 31-April 2, 8pm. $26-$30.