reggie wilson/fist & heel @ dance center at columbia college, 1 april 2011.
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?Reggie Wilson to Sharon Hoyer, NewCity Stage
Reggie Wilson’s collaboration with Congolese choreographer Andréya Ouamba, The Good Dance, Dakar/Brooklyn, starts with the notion that if Westerners ground their sense of the ethics and meaning of life in texts—the Bible, the Talmud—then African and African diasporic cultural traditions use the dancing body as the central medium for communicating ethics and meaning. For Wilson, the “Good Dance” is an African version of the Good Book. But this doesn’t mean that his group’s performance was filled with goodness. On the contrary, there was much sin and suffering, violence and rupture, displacement and disorientation in The Good Dance.
The dance is centered not only around bodies of people—people who come from around the world, people with all different size and shape bodies—but also bodies of water, in this case the twin histories of the Congo and Mississippi Rivers. Deep, troubled, muddy, powerful, both these rivers, which appear in The Good Dance not as contiguous currents, but rather are meted out in plastic bottles of water. These plastic bottles get assembled and reassembled, kicked and thrown, gathered and redistributed throughout the performance.
Each bottle, each dancer, each segment of the piece, each gesture itself becomes a fragment of a larger story, a dispersed sampling of a larger essence, the contained traces of a wellspring, the confluences of a delta, the preserved essences of a larger whole that cannot ever be reassembled again and must, instead, be danced into a narrative, a river of meaning produced from the fragments of liquid contained in our polymer present, never to quite decompose, quenching thirst even while poisoning with impenetrable residues.
There were multiple flows to Wilson’s magnificent and moving creation:
- He broke the fourth wall by speaking to the audience while balancing a bottle of water on his head, at first it seemed like a break from the dance until slowly another dancer entered the stage, dodging and darting around Wilson, trying to knock him from his perch at the center of the piece, an example emerging of domination and the arts of resistance.
- The music and the gestural language of the dancing continually linked African and African-American traditions, persistently noting connections that were powerfully referenced throughout.
- Wilson dragged his dancers around at times, as if to play out power relations between a master and his subordinates at all levels, from the symbolic to the actual.
- Most of all, his troupe collected and doled out their bits of the diasporic river traditions, picking up in new places, borrowing and imitating, crossing cultures as if trying to get to the bank on the other side and back again, alive, navigating the churning rapids, finding beauty in the baptismal moments between.
Wilson’s dance was a purification ritual, to be sure, but it was also an initiation into deeper awareness. It seeped into your consciousness with the silt of history. And like receiving a message in a bottle, a communication from the stormy deeps, one felt filled with wonder at the vast distances that expressivity can travel, the ingenious modes of survival and adjustment that humans absorb, preserve, and send along. We are bodies of water, after all.
But during The Good Dance, one also grew aware of the extended traumas of dislocation in the African diaspora, and the fragility of those hurled along on rafts of this diasporic culture, which was splintered and lashed together as those in its currents undertook makeshift improvisations, dramatic affirmations, and forceful negations and repudiations. To keep their heads above water was no small thing.
The Good Dance‘s mix of wonder and terror was more than good, then, it was great. And it was rendered beautiful by its turn from wisdom found in a frozen body of authoritative texts to knowledge gained through a carefully-corporealized text written with bodies.