In Western tradition…your moral
center is a text—the ‘good book.’ In a
lot of earth-based and African traditions, that moral guidepost is in the human body, so you don’t have a good book,
you have a good dance.
In mid-December, as part of the 2009 Next Wave Festival, BAM will showcase The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn, a collaboration between American Reggie Wilson and African Andréya Ouamba. Ouamba’s Dakar-based Compagnie 1er Temps Danse joins Wilson’s Brooklyn-based Fist & Heel Performance Group to perform a piece three years in the making, in which Wilson and Ouamba explore expansive cultural issues using the stripped-down physicality of the body.
Of particular interest to Wilson and Ouamba are the connections between African-American and African experiences, and the traditions generated at the basins of the Mississippi and Congo rivers. While both are contemporary artists who evade the narrative or didactic, they are nevertheless deeply rooted in the contingencies of place, time, and culture, and The Good Dance serves as a point of post-diaspora reconnection.
Both choreographers’ language is rooted in the driving spirals, stomps, and shakes of Congolese dance—a form that, as a result of the slave trade’s rhizomatic reaches, eventually evolved into styles as distinct as hip hop and salsa. And yet, each has digested this root movement in a different way. Ouamba’s choreography is big, fluid, and expressive, while Wilson’s tends toward staccato, syncopated, stop-and-go rhythms. In choreographing, Ouamba uses exploratory and improvisational techniques, while Wilson tends toward order and pattern. Ouamba’s work is intimate, using solo bodies that undulate singly, seemingly driven by something inside. Wilson’s work is highly social and performative; he uses groups that move together in formation, celebrating or lamenting a shared encounter.
The two choreographers met in Senegal in 2002, and upon discovering shared interests, immediately decided to collaborate; organizing, funding, and rehearsal time would take as many years as creating the piece. Wilson and Ouamba generated ideas in lengthy conversations over Skype before the two companies were able to get into the studio together, absorbing into the body what the artists had discussed intellectually. In August of 2007, Wilson and Ouamba showed the site-specific Accounting for Customs, a 15-minute piece performed on the steps of the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan. This was an initial exploration of issues more fully considered in The Good Dance.
Despite racial and cultural differences, bodies are something we share. Wilson has long confounded expectations by setting “black” movement on “white” bodies, while commenting that the opposite is rarely questioned. Strategies of The Good Dance (e.g. setting identical, simultaneous movements on a petite white woman and a tall black man, side-by-side) vigorously challenge those cultural expectations. The human body, it turns out, might have more good in it than any book.