Performing Arts

Choreographers use dance to express messages about citizenship, identity

From left, Dr. Wallis Tinnie, Cristina Favretto, Augusto Soledade, Dr. Jafari Allen and Reggie Wilson address a group of 30 on April 22 for Wilson's choreographed performance, ‘CITIZEN,’ at HistoryMiami Museum.
From left, Dr. Wallis Tinnie, Cristina Favretto, Augusto Soledade, Dr. Jafari Allen and Reggie Wilson address a group of 30 on April 22 for Wilson's choreographed performance, ‘CITIZEN,’ at HistoryMiami Museum.

Dance has often been used as a medium to criticize current society or to ask questions. In today’s world rife with racial tensions and immigration issues, choreographer Reggie Wilson’s latest work, “CITIZEN,” asks the question, “What does it mean to belong?”

At a panel discussion April 22 at HistoryMiami Museum, Wilson said identity could mean belonging to one racial or religious group or using one preferred pronoun or another. He told 30 attendees how he uses dance to address the issues of belonging, relying on body movement and sequences instead of using words to express his message.

“One of the reasons I wanted to make a dance of it is because I am obsessed with it, and the easiest way for me to process it is thinking through it choreographically, what the body can do and how I can organize the time and space,” said Wilson, whose New York-based company, Fist and Heel Performance Group, incorporates contemporary dance with the cultures of Africans enslaved in the Americas.

Other panelists included Jafari Allen, a professor at the University of Miami specializing in African- American studies; Augusto Soledade, a Brazilian-based choreographer; and Cristina Favretto, the head of Special Collections at the University of Miami Libraries.

Wallis Tinnie, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Black Historical Research Project, moderated. She began by asking each member “how does one identity as a citizen relate to other sources of identity.”

Soledade said he also uses dance to address identity, drawing from personal experience when he was an exchange student in Wisconsin and struggled to fit in.

“I am from Brazil, completely confident about myself until someone asks me, ‘What are you?’” said Soledade, who first attended school in the U.S. in 1993. “The second question was, ‘Are you black?’ And I could never find an answer to that question.”

Soledade, whose family was a mix of Afro-Brazilian, European and native Brazilian descent, has light brown skin. Identifying as being black, or of European descent, would “erase” his family’s history, he said.

“It really is about identity and since I came here as an exchange student, I always struggled with the concept of really who I was,” Soledade said. “I felt I was somewhere in between, I was not in any specific group. When I was asked that question, I couldn’t answer it because I always felt bad about it.”

Soledade and the other panelists said they have traveled and lived in numerous countries, and that the question of identity is asked only in the United States.

“I feel that question is really important, it was only asked of me here in this specific country. I traveled around the world and no one asked me what I was,” Soledade said. “In Brazil, its very complicated, this whole racial relationships, there is much more mixing than here so it created this huge range of shades that has really complicated things.”

“CITIZEN” was performed April 21-22 at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. Tigertail Productions sponsored the event and paid 100 percent of the fees and expenses, according to John Kramel, the arts group’s operations director.

According to Tinnie, the first night fulfilled the message. In the panel, she brought up how in Ancient Rome, only citizens were entitled to wear the toga whereas immigrants and newcomers could only wear a tunic, to remind people of their social status or lack thereof.

“An attentive and engaged audience was privileged to witness choreography how our past doesn’t haunt the present, it composes the present,” Tinnie said. “It was movement, form and elegance addressing the meaning of memory how our body stand up and attest to utopian lifestyle that have brought both oblivion and violence.”