Citizens and Discontent: Nickyland and Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel

Anna Schon, Clement Mensah and Raja Feather Kelly and portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley in Reggie Wilson’s “Citizen”
Credit: Stephanie Berger

Nicky Paraiso titled this year’s Christmas in Nickland as The Winter of Our Discontent, reading from Shakespeare’s opening “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue for Richard III from his phone. Along with looking towards the brooding and plotting, it serves as a timely reminder of Steinbeck’s novel of the same name in which the once compassionate hero abandons his integrity to reclaim lost wealth and power by, among other things, turning in his Italian, illegal immigrant boss to INS and allowing his son to cheat, lie and plagiarize his way to national recognition. New York Dance and Performance (Bessies) Awards Executive Producer Lucy Sexton has put out a letter calling for all arts organizations to publicly state our values “clearly stating your organization’s commitment to diversity, to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, to LGBT and women’s rights, more as you see fit. In this way we can say to the world that we will continue to stand for these truly American ideals; and we can remember to hold ourselves to these standards when the going gets tough.” At this moment, it remains increasingly important to remember from where our discontent grows so that we can remain vigilantly resistant to the forces that pressure us to abandon ideals and others in pursuit of individual protections, profit and contentment’s dangerous cousin, complacency. Discontent, inherently and linguistically not a proactive state, but a reactive one, lures us into numbness and despondency, into the solidity of a noun when we must activate the verb, our practices, the making, dancing, doing and watching. Watching out for others and, quite literally, watching one another. Sylvester Stallone or not, the NEA will suffer greatly in the years coming and, in the end whether directly connected to that support or not, artists will too. If there was only one take away from Danspace’s seminal “Lost and Found” Platform, it was that community matters. When government places profit over people and planet, dismantling dissent with McCarthyism, Silence, Culture Wars or flat-out provable lies on social media, we are going to need to show up for one another. As we double down on discontent, let us remember that Movements require movement, so as Reggie Wison’s dancers do in Citizen, his newest work for BAM, let’s get moving and moving and moving and moving and moving and moving and moving.

In the fall of 2001, I was supposed to premiere a new Dance Theater Workshop commission on a shared program with Patricia Hoffbauer. The final moments of the work revealed how 9/11 collapsed any personal resolve I had as dancers fell to the floor and barely rose again. It concluded with a sincere but contrived attempt to regain compassion for our various origins by projecting images of our younger selves on the pregnant belly of Marina Celander. That innocence and naivete were effectively destroyed in the “patriotic” actions our country has undertaken since then, but what remains is a belief that every citizen is responsible for participating in the dream of this country. And, for me, that dream, those values Lucy is asking us to elucidate includes championing difference and self-direction, a challenging stance in a time of excessive greed and distrust. But even in this unanticipated moment, Citizen and several other works I encountered in December have given me hope that it is in the making and supporting of art, that we can continue to find our humanity and one another.

Reggie notes this power of present context in the program: It’s amazing how life and current events change the perception and meaning of artwork…It all seems like a bit of history repeating. But what is my individual character made of? Do I have the stuff to survive this time?…What did and do folks need to do to learn and exercise agency, and be free and truly independent? What do any of us – immigrant, refugee, outcast, common citizen – have to do? How do we get from here to there? It’s just a dance. But then again…Take what you will and leave what you won’t. Be blessed.” He began Citizen in Spring 2014 in Paris, during a visit to Versailles. He encountered a portrait of Senegal-born Jean-Baptiste Belley (the only image of a black person in the entire collection), a man who had fought for Haiti’s independence from France. How this portrait could come to be in 1797 and why it was not on public display, prompted Reggie’s extensive research interests during the making of the work. As deeply historic, cultural, folkloric and diasporic as all his influences and artistic processes are, it is in physical action that we come to witness Citizen’s promotional tagline of “dancing to resilience in the wake of racism.” The wake that the powerful Fist & Heel Performance Group negotiates is vast and we see each individual navigating through it with enduring grace and variety. The main body of the dance is constructed around solos and repetition. Yeman Brown, Raja Feather Kelly, Clement Mensah and Anna Schon begin on stage in front of the projected image of Belley and commence simultaneous solos, then each returns to perform their material alone or sometimes overlapping. Reggie’s mobilization of vocabularies remains as satisfying as ever. Yeman’s deep plies, high kicks, slicing, rapid direction changes are complemented by Anna’s nible turns, sweeping legs, and deep lunges. Her sultry hip rolls are as well partnered with Raja’s pelvic circles as his backward runs are perfectly situated around Clement’s skipping, polyrhythmic skipping, skotching and spinning. The overlaps allow us to draw relationships among the performers, there’s a momentary glance, an acknowlegement of others and then there’s simply mutiplicity, individual tales to be told again and again, dances to dance and dance and dance – perhaps all members of a shared community getting the daily work done. Each solo and each return accumulates into a physicalization of resistence. It is in our enduring persistence that we effect change. Or, as former Fist & Heel member Rhetta Aleong would recognize from our bygone days in the Seido Karate dojo: Fall 7 times, Stand Up 8.

Clement Menesh, Raja Feather Kelly,
Yemen Brown, Annie Wang, Anna Schon
Credit: Stephanie Berger

Later, when Annie Wang arrives, alone and in a noticeably different lighting environment from Christopher Kuhl, absent the previous videos by Aitor Mendiibar that had brought past iterations of the dancers dancing onto the back and side walls and a stylistically different costume by Enver Chakartashs, I’m momentarily perplexed. Imposing a racial and gendered narrative, I’m not exactly aggravated by her aggregation of everyone else’s material, but momentarily disoriented. She’s then joined by the rest of the company, and in this again diversified group, the dancers continue on, now in unison. In the end, I saw us all making our way through these next days in our own concurrent ways, momentarily uniting but often simply persisting in solo endeavors that share time and place. So, I “took away” the stamina, the collectivity and individuality, and that with grit (that Angela Lee Duckworth buzzword for getting down to it and getting up for it every damn day), that by repeating the same tasks just sometimes with different people, over and over, keepin on and keepn on, we may all persevere and “survive this time.”

Nicky Paraiso’s “Christmas in Nickyland”

Nicky almost canceled this year’s annual event. But, thankfully, he too has found a way to stand up again, persevere and celebrate many of the things that make our homeland (NYC, East Village) great. In La Mama’s Club, he proclaimed “We are here, moving forward, coming together in a theater, in The Theater – thank you Ellen Stewart – despite waking each day in a low-grade depression.” In addition to his Shakespearean reading, Nicky offered his own rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” – inspired by Patti Smith’s recent performance for the Nobel Prize Tribute. According to a recent Vanity Fair piece the lines: I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters were about fake news, but one could easily read the impending water-based crises that will escalate in the incoming aggressive oil-based political agenda there too. His performance was impassioned and eloquent, but he and his guests managed to keep the evening full of delight too.

Anna/Kate BAND – Anna with ukele, Kate singing back from against the wall

The evening included contributions from Chris Tanner, who also thanked Ellen, La Mama’s founder, for reaching far beyond producer, family or friend in her time with him as a younger artist. “She had my back.” Channeling Mama’s feisty, mercurial energies will be needed more and more every day. My newest favorite queer, folk band Anna/Kate Band – I’d just recently discovered them at La Mama’s “Sound Departures” – reminded me again of the power of simple acts, both in their unalloyed arrangements and in the message they had us sing along with them: la, la, la Can you help me see, Can you set me free, Can you help me believe that I, that I, that I can love again. I felt heartened and harkened back to the days when other women, womyn, and wimmin helped remind me to stand and fight with kindness and caring, that we’ll “be okay” or, perhaps, through the finding of kindred spirits will still fashion a meaningful existence. Yoshiko Chuma presented, in her consistent provocative fashion, a collection of videos of past works and a challenge to the audience to join her in Kabul. She brought up two non-performers, one Ryuji Yamaguchi, a scholar, shared an online dialogue with a former student about the situation in Aleppo where he has family. Her continued vigilance and persistence rang strong and clear and the seeds for her next project found some grounding in several people’s support. Susannah Cook shared poignancy and lighthearted takes on lemon cookie recipes and gay pianos. Pepper Fajans managed a live, on stage call to David Vaughn and then guided Nicky through Jon Kinzel’s choreographic directives. Watching Nicky dancing tickled the itch to see more of him onstage, away from his beloved piano and moving through this discontented place back to the time when he was “bravely teetering between brave and foolish,” as evidenced in the video of his younger self we were treated to.

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