Citizen Seekers


A reggie wilson/fist and heel performance group, citizen @ the dance center of columbia college chicago, saturday, 14 october 2017.

Raja Feather Kelly in Citizen.

One might add a question mark to choreographer Reggie Wilson’s full-evening dance piece Citizen. Doubts, questions, uncertainties, and puzzlements about the nature of citizenship pervade the work more than assertions of what this complex category of identity is. What does it mean to belong? And to what is one belonging, exactly? A nation-state, a polity, diaspora, the world, an imaginary state, the bios?

The citizen remains a vexing figure, philosophized since antiquity, invested with rights and privileges, obligations and duties, emancipations and entrapments. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, to be a citizen was, in the ancient Greek republic, to be freed of the need to secure the necessities of life; the head of household could participate in res publica (the public “thing”) and deliberate with arguments that were not constrained by self-interest, since social reproduction had been secured in the private sphere of the home. However to do so, this citizen had to enslave others, ostensibly representing them in the polity but also, of course, denying them entry as citizens in their own right. One only stepped forward into the public role of the citizen in contrast to those left behind, turned back at the doorway of the agora into the domain of the private sphere. Citizenship, in other words, was built on enslavement.

For Wilson, a keen explorer of African diasporic movement in the body and in culture as a whole, this history, which continues to manifest itself today, raises profound uncertainties about what it means to achieve, or even pursue, citizenship. After all, in more modern times, the citizen has become a contested figure of the political nation-state. The civil rights movement’s central demand was realizing full citizenship for those who were systematically excluded from membership: in the realization of citizenship would come power, if not complete emancipation and freedom. But the role of citizen is also problematic, since in the United States it has been used as much, if not more, to exclude people as to include them in full social membership. The promise of citizenship is strong, but so are the doubts about it.

Today, the figures cast out from the full rights of citizenship haunt political and cultural formations of the nation-state: the undocumented, the migrant, the asylum seeker, the “enemy combatant” are non-citizens whose humanity presses in on the category’s limitations. They seem to half belong, placed in what Gorgio Agamben has theorized as “states of exception,” at once under the rule of the law, yet also excluded from its protections. These ambiguous figures have bodies that we include in the civic body, but almost always to treat them as examples of what the loss of citizenship entails. They suffer as non-citizens on the cusp of civic attention.

Annie Wang, Anna Schon, Clement Mensah, and Yeman Brown in Citizen.

Their—and all of our—bodies become the sites of defining who gets to be a citizen and who does not. This is why Reggie Wilson’s turn to dance as a way to explore what the citizen is, has been, and might become is powerful. As Susan Foster has written, questions of citizenship have always related to dance and the body. In one mythic account, the tyrants Gelon and Heiron imposed their rule over Syracuse by banning speech among its citizens. Over time Syracusians developed rudimentary gestures to communicate, eventually developing a complex and potent bodily language of orchestike, or dance-pantomime, that allowed them to coordinate their activities and overthrow their unjust rulers. Out of this use of dance, the tale suggests, grew the art of rhetoric, of public persuasion. Public oration is corporeal. Speech, like any gesture endowed with meaning, comes from the body too. Civil discourse is, at its roots, a dance move.

Language, fittingly then, was not privileged in Reggie Wilson’s piece. The dancers in the Chicago incarnation of Citizen—Yeman Brown, Raja Feather Kelly, Clement Mensah, Hadar Ahuvia, Annie Wang—did not work up to speech. Instead, their capacities for inquiring into movement moved to the fore. In long solos that occasionally overlapped, but mostly took place independently, in and around each other, four of the dancers pursued self inquiry through repetitions of distinctive sets of gestures. These became signature movements, motifs that generated their individual concerns.

Each dancer seemed preoccupied with a kind of interiority, self-reflection, self-attention through questioning these core gestures. They reflected them back to themselves, refracted them, reorganized and restated them. The moves were daring, at times virtuosic, often delivered with a plaintive, sad quality, as if the dancer was amazed yet alienated from his or her own body. These were not always moves toward full understanding, but they were potent in how they insisted on the pursuit of self knowledge. In their extended solos, Yeman Brown, Raja Feather Kelly, and Clement Mensah sometimes almost seemed as if their bodies were pulled in two directions, feet and legs down to the ground, arms and torsos seeking to fly away. Hadar Ahuvia’s movements reminded me of Trisha Brown: quotidian gestures delivered more along horizontal planes of space, loosely articulated with the limbs, as if the arms and legs were leading the way, the rest of the body and the mind curious to follow.

Each of these solos could exist as a full dance piece in their own right. If anything, each dancer became a citizen in a republic of one, the isolated member of a state whose boundaries were defined by how one turned, bent, spun, circled, arched, sat, rose, curved, leapt, flowed,  and interrupted the self. A citizen’s body perhaps emerged in each case, but not a collective civic body.

The alienations were further extended by the video projections, which featured dancers in displaced scenarios, one in a forest, others dressed in eighteenth-century garb that echoed the figure of Jean Baptiste Belley, a Senegalese-born ex-slave who participated in the Haitian and then the National Convention of the French Revolution (Wilson had glimpsed Belley’s portrait in an article and then later traveled to Versailles to view the original portrait, as a New York Times feature article explained). These dancers were wanderers, never quite fitting in and therefore focused on their own bodies as generative engines of moves. In the motor activity of the self, in gestures deeply idiosyncratic, perhaps there was a sense of citizenship yet to discover, yet to realize. In motion, these performers might come to settle in a land of their own, if even an imaginary one of participatory inclusion on uncertain terms.

The dancers of Citizen.

Only when Annie Wang joins the other dancers onstage toward the end of Citizen did they converge into a synchronized ensemble, and even then there was no sense of arrival—this was not the appearance of the collective citizenry so much as a continued restless fragmentation into individuality. A complete sense of togetherness, of fellowship, remained elusive, almost within reach yet confounded by an unease about whether full individual embodiment could be reconciled with collectivity. In one fleeting moment, the dancers seemed to join together in an act of public address, raising their hand up to hold the floor and speak, but the gesture quickly receded. Another of the few shared gestures was of reaching up to clutch the torso, as if each dancer were checking if he or she was still there, in one piece. If these were citizens, they had been buffeted by the questioning of their status to the point that they themselves rested uncomfortably in the role, continually questioning if they were allowed to—or even wanted to—play the part.

Anna Schon, Clement Mensah, and Raja Feather Kelly in Citizen. Photograph: Stephanie Berger.

There was, however, one element that cropped up across each dancer’s singular, repeated motifs. At key points, their individualized gestures resembled various kinds of prayer: supplication, ablution, hope, a dance for the gods with palms clasped above the head. The reach to—and for—some kind of divinity seemed to link together these disconnected citizens. The accompanying soundtrack doubled down on the spirituality by featuring hymns and chants from West Africa as well as the Singing and Prayer Bands of the Delaware and Maryland.

But if unity was to be found here, it was, like the music, to be found in forms that emphasized polyphonic complexity. The disparate individualities of choral voices kept emerging. If there was citizenship to be located in the pulse of this music, in the pulsations of these movements, they continually threatened to break apart in states of radical democratic difference. Only the shared quest for self discovery, infused with a religious yearning that was not apocalyptic so much as continually asserted, seemed to be a way forward. This was not, in other words, religious yearning guided by dogma or doctrine so much as a shared search for individualized modes of transcendence.

Was this quest, this yearning, this spiritual pursuit, what ultimately held these citizens together in something bigger than themselves? And by implication, does the secular role of the citizen, if fully realized one day, somehow come to rest in the shared, gradual infusion of individual desires not so much for deliberation as for deliverance? These days, we sure need to get moving to find some answers.

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