Reggie Wilson Fist & Heel Performance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco
February 9-10, 2007
Denied their drums, enslaved Africans in the Americas reinvent-
ed their spiritual dance traditions as a soulful art form that white
authorities dismissed as merely“fist and heel worshipping.” “Fist
and heel is clapping and stomping, shouting and hollerin’, explains
Reggie Wilson. “It is a continued manifestation of the rhythm lan-
guages that provoked, appeased and controlled spirits.” This tradi-
tion kept the culture alive.
Reggie Wilson calls his form, “Post African/Neo Hoodoo Modern Dance”. Recently, his four-person dance company arrived to show San Francisco audiences what that looked like (it was the company’s first engagement in the city). Those who came expecting Alvin Ailey-style theatrics probably went-away perplexed and disappointed. This was an evening where theory and representation were explored more than movement. Wilson is interested in context and meaning much more than he appears to care about dancing per se. This approach has its merits. The ritualism communicates. Wilson offers depth instead of flash, a kind of cumulative spiritualism rather than any ‘wow’ moments. Virtuosity is replaced by authenticity.
In Introduction (1996) a solo performed by Wilson, what begins as a kind of auto-biographical talk-back with the audience, becomes a worshipful look at life’s journey once Wilson transitions from talk to ritual by means of fist, heel and percussive breathing. Someone should advise Barak Obama to deliver a fist and heel speech some day. It might change the world.
Jumping the Broom (1994) was a meant-to-be-humorous couple dance to old blues recordings of Blind Willie McTell, Papa Too Sweet and others. Here, modern dance repetition was blended with comic acting, and, again, little regard for virtuosic movement of any kind. Tales from the Creek (1998) a solo performed by Michel KouaKou (from the Ivory Coast) in red sequined pants, offered a similar take on movement to blues, although the theme centered on masculinity in this case. Kouaku is a committed but somewhat raw performer. The choreography might be better served by someone more technically proficient.
(untitled) was a solo for the company’s one female dancer, Rhetta Aleong, a full-sized powerhouse from Trinidad and Tobago who offered a seated journey along a stage diagonal. Here, the simplicity of the ritual offered open space for personal reflection and interpretation, an opportunity for making spiritual connections. The Dew Wet (1997) featured KouaKou and Paul Hamilton (a Jamaican dancer) in African garb. Lots of unison, not much choreographic interest.
European dance has taken a turn towards the conceptual, and Wilson seems to represent a culturally-questioning, American version of this. There are times when dance can and should provide catharsis, but there is also room for artists like Wilson, who want us to pause and wonder.
Richard Move created “Martha @” in 1996, as a kind of cabaret act/alt-dance event. Seen in a customized/Californiated version for a one-night stand in San Francisco, it is an interesting concoction, part dance history, part spoof, part dance homage, part theatre piece. Move comes out in familiar Martha Graham drag after a campy film montage (by famed videographer Charles Atlas) sets a tone of lightness and comedy that Graham herself would have abhorred. But that’s the fun of it. Move obviously adores the high priestess of modern dance about whom he has spent so many years imitating, and yet he’s perfectly comfortable lampooning her. It is a tricky balance that he pulls off well, even if the evening never builds to any particularly cohesive point of departure.
A whole generation of dancers have come and gone since Graham died in 1991, so the legacy of this American genius is well-served by Move, who uses the stage time to venerate the legend much more than to eviscerate (although she deserves that too). The speeches and film clips incorporated during the evening are taken from the source, and the spirit of Move’s mini-dances, “Frontier” and “Lamentation” also ring true, although Move is no longer the dancer he must have been in his day (when he was dancing with Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer and Karole Armitage). His cohort, the genuine Graham company dancer Katherine Crockett offers ample evidence of the twisted, contorted beauty of the Graham technique, which, although it has fallen way out of style, may be due for a revival, since no other form of dance offers an equivalent ab workout. Those deep contractions are killers!
There may seem to be no rhyme or reason to Move’s choice of guest artists (although, as MC, she/he does try to find some kind of introductory connection) but the San Francisco dancers on display offered a smorgasbord of what’s happening in dance now, at least in the Bay Area. Matthew Holand and Levi Toney performed an excerpt from a Margaret Jenkins piece, “A Slipping Glimpse” which was a rough and tumble, guy-on-guy affair, something Graham the female-centric choreographer would also have avoided. Marc Bamuthi Joseph offered spoken word performance excerpts that were as powerfully personal as they were convincingly performed. Muriel Maffre, one of the stars of the San Francisco Ballet, offered the brief but unforgettable “Dying Swan” solo.