COCO Dance Talk 2

Spatial, Filmic and Sonic Revisitations:
A Reflection on Reggie Wilson’s “Come and Go ‘Piece a ‘Way”

Sonja Dumas
June 20, 2021; revised December 23, 2021

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Still from Reggie Wilson's
“Come and Go ‘Piece a ‘Way”

I’m preparing – at a snail’s pace - to write one of those long papers some call a dissertation, so I’m predisposed to finding the energy of my dissertation thoughts and themes in the efforts of others. My work is about the Middle Passage and what Trinidad and Tobago movement might have emerged from the terrifying set of transatlantic journeys made by Africans during that period. Not your neat, quantifiable social science study, to be sure. It means that since I don’t have a lot of hard facts for centuries of largely undocumented experiences, I have to pick a few things about which to think intelligently.

Much of how I go about that thinking comes from observing what others have to say. And it’s not only what they’re saying; it’s what and how they’re embodying. Looking at Reggie Wilson’s latest work “Come and Go ‘Piece a ‘Way”, a dance film underwritten and presented by the contemporary dance agency, Danspace Project, was one of those times. The solo was set in St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the famous place of worship in the East Village of New York City, where Danspace Project is based.

I confess that I logged in a little late to the June 18 programme that premiered the work, so I didn’t see the very beginning. But from the very moment that I entered the world of Wilson’s solo performance, I was witness to embodiment that spoke to me, my dissertation and above all, to significant parts of my heritage. I entered the work just as his hand, in a moment of trompe l’oeil mastery, appeared to tentatively caress the face and halo of a stained glass image of Christ. Wilson’s hand gestures - both gentle and menacing - spoke to the relationship between African diaspora personhood and history, and specifically to the intersection of enslavement, religion and colonialism. Wilson’s hands established an intimacy with the iconic image that suggested a loving touch as much as it flirted with strangulation - ideas not too far from the complex and weighty business of history, race, religion and power.

 

This is not at all Wilson’s first encounter with these complicated intersections. Much of his work addresses these themes. In the 2018 book, “Dancing Platform, Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches and Downtown Dance”, edited by Lydia Bell, Kristin Juarez and Wilson, Judy Hussie-Taylor highlights various questions that Wilson asks, one of which is: “what is the relationship between postmodern dance, religious architecture and race in New York City and at other US sites?” That Wilson’s contemporary hand reaches out and confronts these hallowed stained glass images of another era is a way of gesturing into a new way of thinking about old things. In the post-film Zoom chat, Rhetta Aleong, the moderator and Reggie’s longstanding collaborator, sporting a cheeky smile, assured us that no stained glass had be harmed – or touched - in the making of the work. But, I ask, do the stained glass images themselves represent, at least in part, a history of harm?

Wilson built his solo from discussions with the members of his dance company; their ideas form the basis of the phrases of the work. Shift his interpretation of those ideas to the chosen medium of film, and the world of the dance begins to expand and contract in new ways. Film is a medium that can confront the viewer with a multiplicity of meanings through its manipulation of two-dimensionally rendered imagery. The camera can zoom in, pan, go for wide shots or extreme close-ups, etc.; the editor can employ cuts, fades, and a host of other technical options that make the viewer see human effort in a way that sitting and watching a live performance doesn’t offer (and shouldn’t feel obligated to offer). And as the world continues to confront a pandemic where technology has offered substitutions for live interactions, making work that speaks as loudly through a lens as it would if one were in a conventional (physical) dance situation is even more challenging.


As the work progressed, there were powerful instances where dance-on-film allowed a kind of narrowing of focus. There was the primary medium shot of Wilson’s torso and oscillating pelvis buoyed by the quintessential Wilson “shuffle” (what I believe to be a derivation of his immersion in the study of Ring Shout culture). In a series of back-and-forth cuts between the primary shot and other shots of his percussive isolations, and to the guttural rendition of the lyrics, “Sailing, sailing home, (rpt)…Christ is the vessel to ride upon the storm, and we are sailing, sailing home“, video collaborator Aitor Mendilibar establishes Wilson’s movements as a kind of contrapuntal “himself to himself” embodied conversation. The amplification of the body and the acceleration of the rhythmic energy of the medley (called “Mama’Nem Ate Red Clay Dirt” – a nod to another southern African-American tradition) moved in perfect balance.

There were also visual moments that might have parity in both the physical and filmic worlds. Case in point: an extraordinary image of Wilson’s percussively gesturing silhouette shot against the stained glass, occluding, for the most part, the actual stained glass figure of Peter Stuyvesant, the seventeenth century Dutch colonial administrator of the then-New Netherlands (now New York and New Jersey) who is entombed at St. Mark’s. Intercut with other stained glass images of the church, Wilson became a dynamic being in its stead, consuming Stuyvesant and assuming his power. Its potential meaning was as compelling as its intrinsic visual construction; it was another statement of counter-colonization.
 

Wilson’s activated silhouette continued with gestures of making calls on a cell phone. That brought me back to the pedestrian, digital present more quickly than I was prepared to come – so immersed was I in the history and resilience that I was experiencing. But that is the randomness that Wilson enjoys, and it served to further bring home an additional message of decolonial agency: Wilson is using a device that Stuyvesant could have only dreamt of. 

 

As the dance film progressed, so did its dimensionality. The wide shots of Wilson in the cavernous church space - especially the overhead ones - were spatially reminiscent of the interior of a slave ship, emotionally suggesting a feeling of abandonment but also the will to survive. It paralleled for me (in my Ph.D. mode) how academics like Martiniquan Édouard Glissant and American Saidiya Hartman consider the slave ship as a violent womb – a site of deep oppression, but out of which a new African sensibility and resilience is born.

 

I recently encountered (online) the work of multimedia artist Toni Scott. “Slave Ship (Remembering the Forgotten), part of DNA – Bloodlines and the Family of Mankind”, is a gigantic installation of a slave ship suspended from the ceiling and made of translucent blue-tinged photographic images of enslaved people. Their actual recorded words, obtained from the Library of Congress, are played throughout the room, and they are the ancestors of the artist. Wilson defines his setting with his eclectic recorded accompaniment, ranging from the songs of Zimbabwe’s Black Umfolosi to his arrangement of archival sounds by his past and present Fist and Heel Performance Group members, which are woven into a polyrhythmic soundscape. Partly because of this “sonic voyage and experimentation” as Wilson calls it, the work felt, for me, like the complement of Scott’s. The yawning church, replete with Wilson’s amalgamation of songs, breath, chants and sometimes silence, became the bowels of the ship  – the place that Scott’s work does not reveal (at least from what I could see online). It is that liminal space that would have given rise to so many personal and collective African retentions and transformations.

Even what seemed to be the coda of the work caused me to reflect. The camera cuts to Wilson sitting nonchalantly - but also slightly defiantly - in front of what seems to be the gate to the church. I was immediately taken back two-and-a-half odd years to 2018, when, on a trip to Ghana for the funeral of a close family friend, I visited Elmina Castle, one of the notorious slave forts where the enslaved Africans were kept before being taken to the slave ships through what came to be known as “The Door of No Return”.  I remember standing in the tiny room that would have been the enslaved people’s final footing on African land, gazing at the door and trying to absorb the symbolic horror of it all.  The “door” is really a long, narrow portal with a cast iron grill through which, when open, only one person can pass at a time. As Wilson sits in front of the cast iron grill of the church gate, he seems to make the final pronouncement on this thing called bondage: simply, that it is behind him. His message is not that the trauma of his forbears must be forgotten, but that trauma is not the sole foundation of all Black diasporic agency. By any measure of history, it cannot be; African civilization predates the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans by millennia. The Middle Passage, with violent and forced migration at its core, was a space along a continuum where that agency was tested to the limit, and survived.

Lastly, seeing St. Mark’s Church was nostalgic for me; it reminded me of the one time that I performed with Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group. I had a tiny role in his work, Love, presented in 1996, but it was a seismic shift for me as a performer and choreographer. I had come from a Trinidad and Tobago middle-class, ballet, modern and African-Caribbean dance background (read: largely post- and neo-colonial), and most of these were highly presentational in form and didn’t often consider body-mind-history connections with such profundity. Wilson’s work helped me to mine more deeply the spiritual and somatic energies of dance.  

 

In the post-performance Zoom chat, Wilson explained the title of the work, “Come and Go ‘Piece a ‘Way”. A saying he got from his mother, it refers to someone walking with another for part of their journey – even if it is to walk them from one’s front door to the bus stop where the person then takes a bus to go home. I interpret this to be a gesture of moral support and of community. The new wave of dance films, born of a need to create in a pandemic, is a gesture of support for artistic effort, engagement and collaboration. We presume that things will get back to “normal” and that we will be performing to live audiences in physical spaces, with Zoom and other electronic meeting platforms relegated to a miniscule compartment of our lives. In my opinion, we will never be the same “normal” again. However, whatever the future holds, dance/film/dance-on-film/other experiments will find a way to present ideas that will resonate with the human condition as we continue along our own piece of the way.

Reggie Wilson’s “Come and Go ‘Piece a ‘Way” was also presented at the thirteenth edition of COCO Dance Festival which was held online in October 2021. The work is carded for various dance-on-film festivals across the globe.

 

Choreography: Reggie Wilson

All movement source material provided by performers of Fist and Heel Performance Group: Hadar Ahuvia, Rhetta Aleong, Paul Hamilton, Lawrence Harding, Michel Kouakou, Clement Mensah, Gabriela Silva, Annie Wang, Michelle Yard and Miles Yeung

Cinematographer and Editor: Aitor Mendilibar

Camera: Lander Camarero

Music: “Mama’Nem Ate Red Clay Dirt”

Vocalists: Rhetta Aleong, Thomeki Dube, Elaine Flowers, Lawrence Harding, Reggie Wilson.

Costume approval: Naoko Nagata & Enver Chakartash

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Sonja Dumas is a Trinidad and Tobago arts practitioner, educator, writer and theorist, specializing in Caribbean culture with concentrations in dance and film. An award-winning filmmaker, she is also a co-founder and co-director of COCO Dance Festival and the artistic director of Continuum Dance Project. Most recently, she founded Zum-Zum Museum, an interactive Caribbean museum and heritage centre for children.