dances with suitcases: reggie wilson and lucky plush pack their bags.
“My bags are packed, I’m ready to go.” — John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
“Should I stay or should I go.” — The Clash, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”
Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Company’s Moses(es) and Julia Rhoads and Lucky Plush Productions’ The Queue both use dance theater to probe the experience of travel: using the meanings of movement on stage in service of examining the meaning of movement across space. These were pieces in very different registers—Reggie Wilson’s work draws on Afro-diasporic and postmodern forms and features forceful, virtuosic dancing while Lucky Plush is far more cerebral, sometimes corny, very playful, and often focused as much on talk as on dance showmanship. But both pieces shared an interest in the question of physical voyages that were more crucially psychic transits uncertain of their destinations. What they shared too was, paradoxically, a kind of interest in the stationary, in the stillness that one can achieve, or find oneself lost in, when trying to move.
Both performances started with suitcases. At the beginning of Reggie Wilson’s multicultural investigation into the many meanings of the biblical figure of Moses, he played his typical role of interlocutor, part of the performance but serving as a kind of director or narrator in between audience and dancers. As Louis Armstrong’s deeply textured version of “Go Down Moses” played, Wilson slowly stuffed a large red wheelie bag with silver tinsel that was spread across the stage. Part of the thrill of this was spatial: would it all fit in the suitcase? And part of it was temporal: would he finish the job before the music ended? But most of all, the suitcase lingered across the rest of the performance as an image, a motif. As Wilson and ensemble, well, unpacked the many layers and levels of Moses as a symbolic personage across different traditions, the suitcase stood on the side of the stage, as if to ask, from its silent stuffedness: what is it that we compress to take with us when we move? What do we carry? What do we repress? And what do we stash away in an effort never to see it again? What do we leave behind when we wish to or must move on?
The red wheelie bag never appeared again in Moses(es). In Lucky Plush’s The Queue, suitcases, wheelies, purses became a running gag, tossed around by the dancers, set upon faux-conveyor belts, containing body spray and other props, one bag perhaps containing explosives or something mysterious and illegal. The performance was set at an airport, and left us there, on the queue, uncertain of what social cues to follow between strangers and even between familiars in the timeless, placeless—yet harried and intensely circumscribed—realm of the terminal.
Lucky Plush strives for a tonal quality in its work: a kind of warm intimacy that dance movement frames but does not itself embody. It is a performance space of talk, of silent film comedy gestures referenced, of the occasional leap and athletic display but mostly of a kind of hesitancy and self-examination. “What is a second?” one dancer asked, later arriving at an observation of herself: “I’m feeling timeless.” If Moses(es) was all about movement across vast expanses of history and place and tradition, The Queue was about feeling stranded nowhere, in the vexed present, stuck, at the gate, on the security line, in the waiting room, always about to move but never quite getting there. At the same time, The Queue also became about discovering, in that lost space of uncertainty, a kind of humor and solidarity, a sense of kinship and connectedness, even a sort of deep love, among the wheelie bags all packed up and constrained from showing their true contents.
Finally, both of these performances were not only about suitcases; they were also interested in lines. The Queue often featured its dancers in a horizontal formation, and played with the shape and form of the line as it splayed across the stage. A kind of wall of dancers stood at the center of the work, their bags pushed and pulled among them, each performer telling a story as they slowly began to relate to each other from one side to the other. The luggage was essential to these lines of bodies: they were the symbolic outer casings of an interiority that began—slowly, over the strange, delirious, rambling story line of The Queue—to reveal itself.
By contrast to this horizontality, the central section of Moses(es) featured a kind of Soul Train vertical lineup of the ensemble, assembled at the back of the stage; the dancers then stepped forward, one at a time, coming at the audience directly from the rear curtain to the proscenium, each with all the individual virtuosity he or she could muster, dancing their selves expressively, celebrating their singularity as solo performers while also gesturing (quite literally) to a wide and dizzying array of vernacular, balletic, modern, and contemporary styles. They were each themselves yet their bodies were filled with traditions, histories, memories, others. They took us to this moment, inside the present, on stage, where many pasts, like tangled tinsel, were compressed and, ultimately, exploded forth. All this to the ecstatic, pumping sounds of the classic Chicago house track “Follow Me” by Aly Us. It was cathartic and beautiful—a journey that, in this case, did not require one. No baggage needed here, packed as the meaning and energy and power was into the bodies of the performers themselves.