Walker Art Center

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The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn
Shaping Choreography across Continents

Two continents, two great rivers, and two of contemporary dance’s biggest talents: The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn is the culmination of a landmark three-year collaboration between American dance/theater-maker Reggie Wilson and Congolese contemporary dance creator Andréya Ouamba. As a new commission receiving its world premiere at the Walker, the piece will be polished during a two-week residency that includes rehearsals and production work as well as community gatherings, workshops, and a master class.

“Our priorities have shifted and crystallized over time,”says Wilson, who met Ouamba on his first trip to Senegal in 2002. Delving into the vocal sounds, movement, and visual and emotional landscapes of African American and African culture, The Good Dance unearths deep connections between the Mississippi River delta in the United States and Central Africa’s Congo River basin. It also brings forth the personal experiences of each choreographer, tying them into the concept of bodies and movement carrying moral traditions.

Here, Wilson talks about the origins of the work, the process of making dance long-distance, and why he is careful about describing himself as a contemporary artist.

Getting to The Good Dance

“I saw a movie in which one character was repeatedly referring to ‘the Good Book.’ It really resonated for me, how in Western traditions, people go to texts—the Torah, the Koran, the Bible—for guidance and laws. But in African religions, there’s no text. They’re centered around oral traditions, but also around how the body is organized in space: through rituals and ceremonies, through gesture, the way in which you carry yourself. That’s where your information is, and you read other people’s bodies for their information. That moral guidepost is in the human body, so you don’t have a good book, you have a good dance.”

Communicating Experience through Movement

“Andréya and I began talking about how that idea of ‘the good dance’ connects with movement artists in how they carry their work in their bodies, and it has become a primary concern in our piece. It involves looking through the lens of Andréya’s and my experiences, asking questions about who we are, and sharing where we’ve come from. We hope it won’t stop there. By being specific about who we are, if we treat these things respectfully, it resonates into other places, other times, other people and their own traditions. We want to get at the big stuff without trying to be big—but instead look at the details and minutiae of the physical experience of our lives.”

The Mississippi and the Congo: Cultural Crucibles

“Another point of investigation is the Congo/Brazaville and the Mississippi Delta, where Andréya and I come from. People perceive these places to be the bottom of the bottom, but they continue to be crucibles of cultural production. The Delta blues filtered up north and became all these other contemporary forms in Memphis and Kansas City and St. Louis—the Chicago electrified blues, jump blues, and boogie-woogie—with music and dance, it keeps moving forward. There are similar tracks with Congolese music and movement going west to the Caribbean—with Palo/Mayombe, Yuka, and Makuta, rumba and samba—and then back to central Africa, creating any number of new forms.”

Black Bodies and Contemporary Art

“In conversation, I often bring up the fact that I’m a contemporary artist. I’ve come to be really mindful about what others think is appropriate for black folks and black bodies to be doing. At a place like the Walker, it’s assumed that everything is contemporary, but elsewhere, people have their own baggage about black people and Africa and the past. They think of certain traditions as being fixed, as looking and feeling a certain way. Andréya’s and my work does not fit into those assumptions; it’s not where people’s expectations are at.”

Collaboration and Choreography across Continents

“Very little or even none of our work is narrative or linear. It’s very physical, about how bodies move in space, how central that is in creating a sense of an experience of time. Andréya likes play and improvisation; I like structure and set patterns and rhythm. One interesting point of our collaboration is to try and step inside each other’s processes. We give things to each other to play with, and then go back and forth. That process has been really satisfying for both of us. We often work on opposite ends of things and meet in the middle. That only comes with patience, conversation, understanding. Things click because our personalities click. With Skype, we can have long discussions about logistics and ideas, but we make the most of the time when we have the bodies together in the studio. It took awhile to get the performers used to being with one or the other of us, but when they saw that Andréya and I trusted each other, it made it easier for them to come along with us.”