‘Citizen’ strain: Dance explores being an outsider in America

‘Citizen’ strain: Dance explores being an outsider in America
Paula Cort

These dancers are moving — but they’re not moving away.

A dance piece inspired by iconic African-American figures throughout history will raise questions about what it means to belong to a country that may not want you. And while the recent election has many feeling alienated from their country, the creator of “Citizen,” opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Dec. 14, said that such feelings are nothing new for minority groups, and he has made no changes to the piece to reflect recent events.

“It hasn’t per se changed anything, but it did confirm that these ideas are timeless and ongoing,” said Prospect Heights choreographer Reggie Wilson. “I haven’t tried to change the structure or put a little more of this — there’s no clip from ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The difficulties aren’t new, what we’re going through as a nation.”

The piece was inspired by African-American figures who faced racial adversity, but stayed in the United States despite it, including Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent artist in the Harlem Renaissance, and William Henry Johnson, the valet to President Abraham Lincoln. Wilson said that he wanted to express the struggles that those individuals faced through his own art.

“The thing that they have in common is this struggle about belonging and not belonging,” said Wilson, founder of the Fist and Heel Performance Group. “Sometimes you want to [belong], but people don’t want you there. And so, in a non-literal sense, I’m trying to deal with what does that mean? How does that play out? And as a choreographer, what are the tools that I have to make people relate to that?”

In “Citizen,” five dancers will each perform solo, but their movements will overlap and intersect with each other. Meanwhile, video from their rehearsals will play, providing varied lighting and more layers of movement — which is where audiences will find the meaning of the dance, said Wilson.

“The layering is the key thing of piece of the thing for me,” he said. “It’s in the receiving of the information of seeing the bodies doing these things over and over again. These movements get connected to the person executing it and then that information gets shared in a different body. It’s abstract in that way.”

And it is possible that no two people in the audience will leave with the same interpretation of the dance, said Wilson.

“Each viewer has a completely different perspective, if they’re from Japan or Iowa, or have never been to America. And that’s good, that’s interesting to me,” he said. “It’s about the viewer, the audience, the receiver participating in the creation of meaning.”

“Citizen” at BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. between Rockwell and Ashland places in Fort Greene, www.bam.org]. Dec. 14–17 at 7:30 pm. $16–$45.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.