See the lilting Black man. Watch his body articulate itself in space. (“He speaks so well!”)
Watch him sidestep assumptions, shrug off popular images of Black manhood that never fit him anyway. His choreographer could be Helanius Wilkins, founder and artistic director of the Washington, D.C.—based Edgeworks Dance Theater. Established in 2001, the theater is believed to be the only primarily Black male dance company in the United States. Wilkins positions the celebrated dance ensemble as a counterpoint to the media drones’ pathology-obsessed portrayals of Black men.
Case in point: About three years ago, Wilkins came across an article in The Washington Post entitled “Black Men in Need of Civic Help.” The thirty-something choreographer was exasperated to find the usual grim parade of statistics woven into the article, the same hopeless accounting of Black male possibilities. Incarceration. Endless cycles of violence. Abandoned children. Wilkins was compelled to write a letter to the editor detailing the positive contributions Black men were making in the local community, but it was never published. However Melting the Edges, his artistic response to the article, did make it to public view. In the trio dance work, Wilkins shows Black men relating to each other tenderly, literally supporting and lifting one another.
“My response was to create a work showing men in a completely positive light, coming together on a common ground and being able to uplift one another,” he explains. “What I was reading [in The Washington Post article] was part of the reason I founded Edgeworks. I wanted to show men who were both strong and vulnerable.” The Lafayette, Louisiana native adds that Melting the Edges, contrary to what is expected on stage, had no dramatic tension: “There is no antagonism. There isn’t any villain. It starts on a high note that’s intimate, and it grows.”
Wilkins’s pioneering exploration of Black masculinity, identity and vulnerability through concert dance has garnered considerable attention and respect. He has received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his work has been commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as other institutions around the country. He has even been able to bring his dynamic interrogation of stereotypical Black manhood to Monaco and Lithuania. The way he supports himself is just as varied and dynamic, including master teaching, resident artist positions in university settings and mentoring other companies and artists. “The combination of all those things feeds me, inspires me and allows me to investigate my work too,” Wilkins says.
“Investigate” is an apt word to use in relation to Wilkins’s latest work, Cold Case. Somewhat like a detective, one day he sat down and created links between various currents in Black history, including slavery, lynching, Black Power, hip-hop and its co-opting. He wrote about Emmett Till and others lost to racial violence. He sketched “a family tree” of events, he says. And he concluded that the Black experience in the U.S. was more circular than linear, and that the investigation of its contours was only preliminary.
“Whenever we choose to pick [an issue] up, or whenever we’re being driven to think about it, that’s when it becomes a hot topic,” Wilkins maintains. “And when it vanishes, that doesn’t mean that it’s solved it doesn’t mean that the folder is closed. It’s unsolved and ongoing.”
Part of his research for Cold Case involved organizing and facilitating six to seven multigenerational discussion groups of Black men from all walks of life. Comprised of seven to 10 participants from their teens and older, the discussion groups were a forum for Black men to share their own self-definitions, as well as explore how mainstream U.S. society defined them. “The vision of Cold Case was not to show Helanius’s take on the state and journey of Black men in America,” Wilkins argues. “It was about basically presenting Black men as they really exist and as they have existed. And to do that in part was to hear how they exist–hear it from them, not from someone else. And so I wanted people to hear different voices, different perspectives.” Accordingly, snippets of the discussion group participants’ voices are heard throughout the performance piece. “The recordings of the discussions became the basis of me getting a better understanding of the project and how I wanted to sculpt it, but it also became the means for developing the text, sound score and the trajectory of the project,” he adds.
Cold Case is actually the first installment of the Negro Dance Theatre (NDT) Project, a multimedia endeavor aimed at excavating and honoring the legacy of Black men in concert dance. After his own company was formed, Wilkins was curious about the history of other Black male dance companies in the United States. He only discovered one other company–the Negro Dance Theatre–which performed in the mid-to-late 1950s but is largely forgotten in the annals of American dance. However, Wilkins has been able to make contact with two of the original NDT members, as well as the choreographer of the work he plans on reconstructing and adapting. The name of the 1955 work is Gotham Suites, and it is based on the five boroughs of New York.
“In New York, there’s a lot of grit, a lot of risk, and there’s a lot of fear–and all of those things resonate with me,” Wilkins notes. He also points out that the Negro Dance Theatre and Edgeworks Dance Theater have a common identity as Black male repertory dance companies exploring issues related to living in an urban society.
Once Gotham Suites coalesces, the filming for the documentary will begin. It will feature interviews with some of the choreographers, company members and others behind NDT and explore the process of reconstructing Gotham Suites. The documentary will also delve into how conditions outside the concert hall impact what happens inside. “The documentary will speak to how societal conditions affect the artistic process. What the work was like, and why were they creating it that way then–and what we are able to create now and why,” explains Wilkins. An exhibition of archival film, photographs and print media will be the third and final component to the NDT Project.
Although it has been more than half a century since NDT last performed, Edgeworks has had to face the same crucible of race and sexuality. Some audience members are not used to seeing Black men touch and lean into one another on stage, and the company has to tackle homophobia and heterosexism, although not all of the members identify as gay. “There are people who are uncomfortable and have to be eased into it,” Wilkins comments. The supposed dubiousness of the male dancer’s sexuality is something that comes up even beyond the context of an all-male dance ensemble, the idea being, says Wilkins, that “if a male [was interested in dancing], something may be wrong with [him].” Edgeworks was created to tackle such fallacies head-on as “Crap Shoot: Assumptions vs. Truth,” an excerpt from Cold Case, shows. In “Crap Shoot,” Wilkins addresses the furor surrounding the “down-low” phenomenon in an intentionally elliptical fashion at first. As the duet progresses, it becomes clear that the subject is AIDS and its often attendant silences. During most of the piece, two dancers have their backs to the audience. The purpose of that, says Wilkins, was to illustrate secrecy. It isn’t until the end that the dancers turn, reaching for the audience. At that point, asserts Wilkins, the ball is in the audience’s court to continue the conversation: contact is made, secrets are begging to be told and true intimacy is longed for.
Despite the fact that much of Wilkins’s work is issue-based, he does not aim to create art that can be reduced to mere message. “It’s not that I’m striving to make some great comment about racism, drugs, AIDS or violence,” he insists. “All of those things come into play, but at the end of the day I am presenting Black men as they exist and have existed, dealing with their pains, their fears and their hopes.” Wilkins studied dance at the State University of New York College at Brockport and film and video production at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and his work bespeaks his abiding interest in multimedia and multi-vocality, in pushing boundaries both disciplinary and societal. The various voices heard in Cold Case while the dancers spatially tell their stories reveal his frustration with flat, static portraits of Black masculinity. Instead: moving images that are as unpredictable as they are human. Because beyond the impeccably choreographed media spin on what it is to be Black and male, there he is again, entering stage left, the lilting and possible Black man.
For more info, visit www.hjwedgeworks.org.
LaVon Rice is a freelance writer in New Mexico.