How Creating Dance Helps Reggie Wilson "Get Rid" of His Obsessions
With a blend of postmodern and black aesthetics, Reggie Wilson's work explores connections between secular and spiritual cultures of the African diaspora in the Americas. Audiences are drawn to his unique synergy of formal rigor, playfulness and depth.
The Milwaukee-raised award-winning choreographer formed Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group in Brooklyn in 1989 after dancing for Ohad Naharin. Most recently, he curated the 2018 Danspace Project's Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance.
He recently spoke to Dance Magazine about his creative process.
Where His Ideas Come From
Reggie Wilson. Photo by Peggy Woosley.
"An idea hits me and I think, Oh, that's cool. I usually don't follow it when it first happens. And then it will recur and recur, over and over again. It gets to the point of obsession. Making a dance will help me process it, think about it on multiple levels, engage with numerous people and cultures and thinkers."
"I don't ever go with making a piece that will sell. Like the figure of Moses—the idea behind Moses(es)—didn't fit the litmus test of a popular point of research, but I was reading Zora Neale Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain, and a dancer's uncle was a Moses scholar. That seems to be the way I operate. The universe or somebody wants me to think about something a little more. Then I have to "get rid of it," which means incorporating it into my everyday existence. Then it stops being disruptive."
What His Research Process Is Like
Wilson loves finding out where his blind spots are. Photo by Jamie Kraus.
"What nurtures the idea is consuming as much information about it as possible. I'll look at Wikipedia, definitions, etymology, a thesaurus. From my first year at NYU, every weekend I'd go stare at the images of Africa in Rizzoli's art books. Or I'd go to a Margaret Mead Film Festival, a dance or music concert. Obsessive. I need to go to this country. Or hang out in this part of the city. Or go to this club. Or this class."
"There's a curiosity for finding out where my blind spots are. "What didn't I know I didn't know?" I get so excited when that shows up."
The Most Surprising Part About Shakers
"Now I'm doing this Shaker stuff in my work. I thought the Shakers were like the Amish or the Puritans. Totally the opposite. You think about rigidity and stricture, the separation of the sexes, but there are a whole bunch of radical ideas—a religious sect channeling innovation in technology and education, always trying to reinvent and discover in their service of spirit."
"Dancing together was important to the Shakers. Their statement "We find no harm in dancing"—in contrast to the way the Puritans thought—repositioned how I regarded them."
His Advice For Young Choreographers
Fist and Heel Performance Group. Photo by Antoine Rempé
"I tell young choreographers to make as much work as possible. Stop being precious. Get your chair dance out. Get your emotional dance out. At the same time, be strategic in what you show and to whom. Everybody doesn't have to see everything. And you can't control what people are going to think."
- Take Me to Church and Let Me Dance Reggie Wilson's Platform for ... ›
- Reggie Wilson - Fist + Heel Performance Group on Vimeo ›
- REGGIE WILSON / FIST AND HEEL PERFORMANCE GROUP ›
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.