Monday, September 17, 2012

letting go

photo of Helanius J. Wilkins by Sadar Aziz 

Once in a while there is a performance that grips me, takes me by surprise, and leads me into unexplored places that both inspire and challenge. That performance happened last night at Dance Place when Helanius J. Wilkins presented /CLOSE/R.

What made this experience even more powerful was that I had seen different iterations of this work since I serve as his thesis project advisor at George Washington University. I met Helanius a year ago when he was a student in a MFA course I taught at GWU called “Contemporary Performance & Criticism.” Instantly I was drawn to his thinking: perceptive, critical, creative.
I went to Berkeley for a year and explored ideas about how knowledge is generated through sensation – using this to examine everything from flash mobs to Carrie Noland’s theories in Agency and Embodiment. When I returned to GWU in the summer of 2012 Helanius and I were once again on similar pages, intrigued by ideas about indeterminacy in creative process and performance and jostling the structures that insist on choreographers creating neat products that fit into showcases and mixed repertory programs. How can we as artists and scholars move dance away from the spectacle it has become on tv shows and competitions where value is measured in terms of glitz and audience satisfaction?

/CLOSE/R is a journey. It took me through places of joy, uncertainty, and disclosure. I entered the theater and saw Helanius already there, grooving and flowing, his back to the audience for much of the beginning of this piece, as music filled Dance Place. I entered into his ritual, a word that came up during the post-performance discussion, and resonated with the transformation and arc of /CLOSE/R. Ritual is a word that I also use when I teach courses in dance history and contemporary performance: ritual as antithesis of spectacle, or on a spectrum of approaches to performance, ritual as experience that takes us into uncertain territories and changes us, transforms us. Spectacle is candy; ritual is nourishment. In /CLOSE/R Helanius took me to places where I saw my own vulnerability, fragility, surrender, and existence. Existence as it connects to being, to surviving and thriving not facades and pretty faces. The performance oscillated between moments of presentation and invitation, showing us the charm and charisma of Helanius, then asking us to think about our own thresholds and boundaries.

Throughout /CLOSE/R Helanius was honest, generous, gorgeous, and courageous. During the vibrating, shaking section that reminded me of images by Francis Bacon and performances of butoh -- as Daniel Burkholder suggested in the post-performance discussion – Helanius revealed what some people may consider ugly or grotesque. This uncovering not only shifts definitions of dance and theater, but also changes our ways of seeing the world.

Another comment during the post-performance discussion that lingers came from Melanie George, Dance Program Director at American University, when she asked about the adaptability of this piece to a shorter format. Can /CLOSE/R be excerpted? To me this performance is not a product but an experience. It is not something to be packaged into a sampler of DC dance artists like VelocityDC: it is a work that places demands on its audiences, that asks us to go deeper into our own awareness and reflective processes, that takes us through layers of shedding. Why is it so rare for an artist in DC to be given the space, time, and support to create and present such a work? Why is much of dance presenting in this area focused on pleasing audiences rather than nurturing artists?

I am grateful for the bravery and risk-taking I saw last night. Grateful that Helanius carved out a way to make this journey happen. Grateful that he is so bold and brilliant. Thank you Helanius.


  1. I'm sure the "pleasing" comes from a surrender to pay the artist(s). But the real question is why does the raw art have to be the landscape that changes us? What can really change us, like the way Helanius changed you last night? What is the real price for that, Kate?

  2. I attended the Saturday evening performance and now wish I'd gone to the Sunday performance as well. It appears that I missed a great dialogue session! Continuing what Kate so beautifully stated, I would like to emphasize the fact that Helanius' movement was genuine and honest. Being true to himself allowed his artistic vision to be realized. He was truly connecting/communicating with us in the audience.

  3. I am a dance artist who has lived and worked in the DC area for 11 years now. And I am happy to have stumbled upon this blog. I am also extremely sad that I didn't make it out to see this performance that everyone seems to be talking about. Thank you for your descriptions/interpretations and exciting words about the piece - I especially loved "Spectacle is candy; ritual is nourishment." Yes. How very true. I hope Helanius will show this work again.