Reggie Wilson’s Citizen is a work that accrues power with repetition. It takes off from the simple concept of a brief series of steps that each dancer of the Fist and Heel Performance Group repeats throughout. Each dancer has his own set of steps, his own vocabulary, and they are varied according to the music. At the beginning of the show, the dancers perform their sequences to recorded music in front of a projected video. They are all on stage and moving around one another so that it’s a little confusing at the outset. In the video, which is projected against canvas panels surrounding the stage’s perimeter, the dancers are performing those same steps in an outdoor environment. That’s not apparent at first because the projected images are broken up by the images being projected on canvases of sizes that are too small to be able to see the whole thing at one time. Only with repetition do we realize that these are the same steps. After the group dance that opens the show, each of them performs a solo in which they explore their steps more thoroughly and we get to see these individuals in more detail by concentrating on them alone. As they do their solos, the projection consists only of their own dancing and there’s time to get to know them and each of the performers is compelling in different ways. Clement Mensah has a refined sense of syncopation that leaves him floating in the air, above the music, and he has a strong core. Raja Feather Kelley, with his long arms and legs takes space with incredible reach and he moves as lightly as a feather. Yeman Brown is taut and tense, projecting the feeling that he might explode at any moment. Anna Schön moves with bird-like quickness and great technical facility. Annie Wang dances with profound inner stillness that is gripping and strangely comforting.
The first song they dance to is Run, Nigger, Run, so clearly race is a central idea in the piece but by no means is it a limiting or all-defining theme. Other songs are taken from spirituals of The Singing and Prayer Bands of Maryland and Delaware and there are works by African musicians among others. The performers deliberately maintain neutral expressions. I wouldn’t say blank faces, because you can readily see their personalities. It seemed to me that we were required to project our own feelings onto an empty canvas in much the same way that the video was projected on the screens around the stage. They do not interact with one another at all and they only occasionally seem to acknowledge the audience. They are not precisely expressionless but they’re not projecting anything specific either. They are simply being. In this sense, Wilson is not telling you what to think or what to feel, but rather is trying to inspire you to imagine. This is not some sort of naïve plea for understanding and brotherhood. Wilson is a deep thinker. He’s asking you to observe, feel and think for yourself. Citizen is about many things and, while race is certainly central, there is also the question of what it means to belong, not to belong and to not even want to belong. There is a deep sense of alienation implied by the dancers not relating to one another. Each is alone, sharing space in a separate existence. The more you bring to it, the more it reveals.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Wilson said, “I hate the written word.” Nonetheless, he has provided a recommended reading list, as he often does for his works, so we might take that statement with a grain of salt. Of course the written word matters. To imply otherwise is foolish. There are times, however, when the direct, non-verbal experience of dance can open us up in ways that the written word cannot. Dance elicits a visceral response that cuts through the linguistic parsing of ideas and allows us to feel without the interference of our rational minds. Is that enough to open a closed mind? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
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