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Home > Blog > May 2015 > 10 Questions for 2015 Choreography Fellow Reggie Wilson
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10 Questions for 2015 Choreography Fellow Reggie Wilson

May 6, 2015 by New York City Center
Reggie Wilson Dance

The choreographer Reggie Wilson has been called “an anthropologist of the lost gesture,” and it’s no exaggeration—his work has been inspired by field research conducted everywhere from Trinidad to the Mississippi Delta. “I don’t control what filters in,” he says. “Maybe it’s the food of the place, maybe it’s the smell of the place, maybe it’s the temperament of the people; all of those things have an impact choreographically.” Since founding the Fist & Heel Performance Group in 1989, Reggie’s “post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dances” have been performed across the globe. We caught up with the 2015 City Center Choreography Fellow by phone.

CITY CENTER: Do you keep a notebook?
REGGIE WILSON: Yeah, I do. Today you can document the process with photographs and videotape, but I still like the tactile thing [of a notebook]. If I’m going to different places, I might put in photographs and brochures and pamphlets. I also write down mnemonic devices that my dancers come up with to remember a phrase during the rehearsal breaks. I like to rehearse for, say, three weeks and then not rehearse for a month. It’s nice to make something and leave it and then return to it. I feel like it gives the work more depth and weight, and helps me understand what I want to shift and get rid of. Naming has become an active part of what we’ve been doing. Even if it’s a little 10-second phrase, we give it a name, whether it’s “the Tommy phrase” because Tommy made the phrase up, or the “sunshine phrase” because it was really sunny that day, or “the walking tour jeté phrase.” Somebody who sees that wouldn’t know how to interpret it, but we know what it was.

So your notes are impossible for an outsider to decode?
I think most choreographers’ and dancers’ notes are…it’s worse than reading a teenage girl’s diary. (laughs) Or maybe a teenage boy’s journal. There’s stuff that you want to remember, but you don’t want everybody to be able to tell who “Q.R.” was.

Introduction (Excerpt) from Reggie Wilson on Vimeo.

Your work Moses(es) is being performed in a Milwaukee sculpture garden this July, and you’ve requested that everyone in the audience wear white. What other requests have you made of audiences?
Usually very, very little. (laughs) And probably a lot less than they’re trying to figure out what I want from them. The audience participates whether they’re conscious of it or not; what I do is try to figure out choreographic devices that will make them aware of their participation in the work—aware that how they see a piece is relative to the lens that they’re looking through. Like, what is their experience with what it means to look at black bodies in performance in America? What is their experience with postmodern experimental work? When we did Moses(es) in a chapel on Governors Island, I had the audience sing with us. They’re just in their seats, and can decide whether to sing or not. So they sing, or they realize, “Okay, I just want to watch this thing; I don’t want to sing.” They become aware of their experience of seeing.

If you could create a site-specific work anywhere on earth, what location would you choose?
I’ve thought about this and I have no answer. I’ve done a number of site-specific performances, and I really enjoy it—but I like problem-solving, so I like it when someone presents a place to me. What’s interesting about doing Moses(es) in a number of different places is that we’ve got a set piece, and then I need to figure out how to adapt it so that it’s in conversation with the place. I just did a workshop yesterday with a woman whose whole thing is site-specific work. She had us go in the street and look for the “cues.” Public spaces kind of give you cues about what you should or shouldn’t be doing there—like how subway benches used to be flat, but now have dividers that prescribe what size you should be, and tell you that you shouldn’t lay down. You have to think, How can I bring attention to what the space is saying or doing? Do I follow the cues, or respond by doing the opposite?

What new works are you planning to develop at City Center during your Fellowship?
The whole time I’m there it’s gonna be CITIZEN.

What’s it about?
It’ll be about citizens. There are two ongoing triggers for the new piece: one is Zora Neale Hurston. Right now it seems to be a little bit less about her work, and a little bit more about her life, and using her work and peoples’ scholarship to unpack how she came to be who she was. The other trigger is this woman Rebecca Cox Jackson, who was a black Shaker. I was working on another project, and she just kind of surfaced, and I was like, “a black what?!(laughs) The other kind of strong thing is this painting of Jean-Baptiste Belley, which is the only painting of a black person at the National Archive in Versailles, in France. His life was interesting, bizarre, and fascinating.

Do you have any cultural obsessions—songs, books, movies—that never show up in your work?
Like popular culture? I don’t have a litmus test or a barricade about what gets into the work and what doesn’t. In my process I have this thing that I call “found material,” and it continues to surprise my collaborators—because I joke, also, so they don’t necessarily know if I’m joking when I say, “Let’s come up with something based on Gangnam Style.” And we’ll come up with a whole phrase kind of reimagining and taking elements from that. But it’s just pretty arbitrary. Whether it’s a figure from the 1700s, or a cultural tradition from Africa, or the finale to A Chorus Line, watching Baryshnikov do that—all of that is equal fodder for me.

Reggie Wilson Studio

Your company performed Big Brick: a man’s piece at Fall for Dance in 2004. What do you remember about performing at City Center?
When you move into a space, there are just so many things that you’re trying to do as a choreographer that holding on to the experience is really difficult. But I remember feeling like the stage was enormous. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I just remember it feeling really different than the venues that we had been in at that time. A little bit less so now, having been at BAM and a couple of other opera houses. It was also the first Fall for Dance, and the whole idea was just so radical. I remember being excited about being acknowledged, and asked to participate in this new experiment that kind of validated dance in New York City the way it had been back in the eighties, when dance was just a metaphor for New York City. It felt like a comic in the Village Voice—“I’ll do a fall for dance.”

The first thing you ever choreographed was a high school production of Godspell. Have you ever thought about doing musicals?
Not very deeply. I still love musicals, and I still relate very strongly to the musicals that I did back in my high school days, like Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, and Godspell. They were the ones that were a little bit more edgy; it wasn’t like Guys and Dolls and Carousel. One of the things I thought when I moved to New York was that I’d go to a lot of jazz clubs and see a lot of Broadway shows. I think I’ve gone to maybe three musicals since 1985, and maybe three jazz clubs. I feel slightly guilty about that.

Can you share something about the life of a choreographer that nobody talks about?
People know too much already. (laughs) I can be really transparent and direct about what I’m trying to do in a particular piece—and every interview, people are like, “What do you think of our city? And how long did it take you to create the piece? And what does it mean?” And if I tweeted, which I don’t, and if I was better at responding to emails, and if I was on Facebook more…I just want more negative space, and more privacy. You don’t need to know anything about me to see the piece.

Click here to learn more about the Fellowship.

Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.