Impressions of Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group's "Citizen" at BAM's Harvey Theater
Choreography by Reggie Wilson
Performed by Yeman Brown, Raja Feather Kelly, Clement Mensah, Anna Schön, and Annie Wang
Dance Cinematography by Aitor Mendilibar
It feels like the world needs dance more than ever. In a time where words and facts have no meaning (Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is post-truth), perhaps physical poetry could restore dignity to humanity. Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group certainly makes the case for it with Citizen, an hour-length work that received its New York premiere at BAM.
The genesis for Citizen was a 1797 portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley by Girodet. Belley, a slave from Senegal, purchased his freedom in the French West Indies before fighting in the Haitian Revolution. In 1793, he was elected to the French National Convention before losing his seat four years later. Belley's portrait is housed at Versailles, the lone black face in a sea of white. Wilson’s interest in Belley led him to study African-American individuals who’ve grappled with discrimination and their decision to belong — or not.
While Belley’s portrait may be the starting point, Citizen is no literal depiction of him or any specific black individual. Instead, it unspools as a meditation on solo and structure, the root of which is the performers’ integrity.
The solo acts as the live-action version of a portrait — a presentation of one garnering the focus of many. For his cast of five, Wilson designs a straightforward movement palette: swinging arms, flinging kicks, cadenced skitters. Sometimes, a crouch or a rocketing leap interrupts the pulsations. Wilson cuts and pastes, slows down and speeds up, so that the solos, while individualized, spin into one long thread. The music’s thumping rhythms and plaintive vocals, from artists like Senegalese Baaba Maal and Ethiopian-born Aster Aweke, enhance this feeling.
Citizen starts out big and baggy, with three men, rangy with limbs that shave through space, and one woman, petite but forceful, performing longish solos. Yeman Brown tosses a leg toward his ear, and Anna Schön cocks her wrists over her head. Clement Mensah flicks his lower limbs, and Raja Feather Kelly undulates his hips. On quadrangles of fabric that rest upstage, lush videos of the dancers inside a studio and out play intermittently. Belley’s portrait flashes near the beginning and the ending of the piece.
The cycle of solos repeats, but they’re abbreviated and overlapping. At the completion, Annie Wang, dressed in black like a shadow, slips through a solo that echoes the four previous ones. Then, all the dancers join her: clapping and stomping in a shower of aural confetti.
Beyond its formalistic structure, Citizen, while striking and thoughtful, doesn’t offer much content or evolution. The burden, then, of maintaining interest falls on the performers, who exude matter-of-fact confidence and unflagging stamina. They are the truth the world needs.