Straight from the Hip: Black Men Dance in First Person

Article excerpt

SEE THE LILTING BLACK MAN. Watch his body articulate itself in space. ("He speaks so well!")

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …