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Flash Review 1, 9-14: Kicking Butt with "Fist & Heel"
Wilson Opens DTW's Goodbye Season

By Faith Pilger
Copyright 2000 Faith Pilger

Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Performance Group began its 3-week season at Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Schoenberg Theater last night. Entitled, "Wangena -- the birthday concerts," this show celebrates Wilson's 33rd birthday with its audience through a sensuous combination of sight, sound, scent and even taste...a refreshingly inventive and friendly atmosphere for modern dance. The title is similarly inviting, a Ndebele word which translates as "(s)he is coming in."

Before the evening had begun, we were reminded by David White, executive director and producer at DTW, that this would be the last season at the BST as we know it, pending renovations to DTW's Chelsea home and the eventual reopening of a larger space on the bottom floor in 2002. This immediately put a damper on the mood in the room, setting up a challenge for Wilson as he took the stage for his "Introduction." I found myself feeling skeptical as he attempted to warm us up -- shaking the hand of an audience member in the front row, "No really, how are you?!," and requesting a communal deep breath. Fortunately, Wilson has a very personable demeanor and, before I knew it, I was able to laugh and really listen to his story. It was the story of himself, his journey, and a much older, wiser story of history, roots and the mystery of dance, music and life. I was reminded of a quote by Francis Bacon that I recently found: "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery."

Wilson's story IS interesting. Even the name of his group holds mystery, a tribute to "fist and heel worshipping" -- a derogatory way of referring to the worship style of enslaved Africans that had converted to Christianity after the drum had been taken away from them. Wilson's work has a historical basis and pays homage to these roots. But even more interesting than his message is his method. His introduction/solo set a mood -- one grounded by infectious rhythm found in vocal clicks and moans, aspirations; sounding paradoxically inhuman while striking deeply personal chords. I was fascinated by the way in which he kept rhythm while performing so clearly in-the-moment, relating to the audience by responding to our reactions to himself. This trance-like state was one which reemerged throughout the evening, but never again quite as honestly as in this introduction.

"Jumping the Broom" was a witty, theatrical duet performed by Rhetta Aleong and Paul Hamilton. There was an interesting costume role-reversal in which Hamilton was dressed in an apron-like dress while Aleong wore pants and flannel shirt. I took this to mean that the dominant Aleong "wore the pants in the family," as it were. This relationship was full of quirks from beginning to end -- introduced with the atypically female "butt-dance" in which Aleong persistently backed her backside into her victim, I mean conquest. The second vignette, much lighter and less laced with irony, could have been their wedding dance (married, so soon?). The third and fourth sections were the most interesting to me, bringing more attention to the broom (lying on the floor most of the dance) and again to Aleong, who was incredibly expressive as the wife frustrated by her seemingly useless husband. Among other picturesque moments was the final vision of the woman sitting on her man, much like an animal on Wild Kingdom, picking small things from his nose and ears.

Although there were two beautiful "movement" pieces on the program, "Rise Sallie Rise," in the first half and "PANG" closing the show, both seemed to be slightly less effective than their live musical accompaniments. While the dancers, including Nicole Falloon, Penelope Kalloo, Stephanie Tooman and Richard Rivera, each had moments of poignancy and moved freely within the vocabulary of post-African/modern dance, there was a sense of intended spiritual abandon which never quite hit the mark. Musically however, it was quite brilliant. I must make a special note that this was possibly the best live musical accompaniment to dance I have been lucky enough to experience. It should also be noted that one of these vocalists was Reggie Wilson, and another was the previously mentioned Rhetta Aleong (a very talented woman). Equally talented and enigmatic were Elaine Flowers (in traditional African dress) and Lawrence Harding. Their vocal presentations of original and traditional blues and native music were fantastic.

Choreographically, both group works as well as Wilson's second solo, "vanitystarts@home," touched on familiar topics with a fascinating intensity: the journey of the individual, family, community and their experience of possession, ritual and relativity. I must admit that Wilson's research grants have been well spent. His influences: beginning with his family's roots in the Mississippi Delta, to Trinidad and Tobago and most recently Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.... These influences are well represented through his unique vision.

Lastly, I must return to my initial comment about the sensual experience that this production insists upon. I have mentioned the sounds and sights, but the intermission is another experience altogether. Walking into a room smelling of musky incense, the audience is encouraged to partake in Reggie's Birthday Cake (yes, there will be one at every show for three weeks; quite an undertaking). I was also immediately drawn to a little table which sold concert posters as well as tiny black boots made of soap stone, sold on a simple white string. Each boot is original and keeps in the spirit of "fist and heel" just enough but not so much as to seem kitschy. I bought one for myself as well as the friend who accompanied me to this show. A great souvenir for an evening that undeniably "kicked butt."

Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Performance Group continues at DTW through September 30. For more info, please visit DTW's web site.

 

Faith Pilger, a Juilliard grad and 1994 recipient of the Princess Grace Award in the field of modern dance, has been an active performer, choreographer, musician, singer, writer and producer for years. On September 22 & 23 at Gowanus Arts in Brooklyn, Pilger and Veronica Dittman present "The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour," a benefit for the Spoke the Hub scholarship fund. This Flash Review is Pilger's critical debut.

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