What does it mean to belong — to a community, to a place, to our own bodies?
Artist Helanius J. Wilkins and collaborator A. Ryder Turner are embarking on a massive project, spanning all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to hold that question like a mirror on the disparate states of America. It’s called “The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging” — a title that Wilkins admits “doesn’t roll off the tongue.” Nor should it. The work is born of unreconciled social injustice, centuries in the making.
When Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country in the summer of 2020, Wilkins began walking great distances in solitary solidarity. Made hesitant by the risks presented by COVID-19 and outright violence toward protestors, yet burning to support in his own way, these walks became for Wilkins a form of resistance. Witnessing socioeconomic stratification from the streets inspired, in part, “The Conversation Series.”
“The project gains substance, momentum and direction from a series of conversations in and with different diverse and inclusive communities across America,” states a press release.
Wilkins’ connections with Dance Initiative, as a member of the Carbondale-based nonprofit’s board, designated the Roaring Fork Valley as one of the earliest stops in this epic exploration of one of the world’s most dispersed and divergent nations.
As an interracial, male duet, Wilkins and Turner “share weight and responsibility, dancing to become better ancestors,” the literature continues.
Their weekend in Carbondale began with a presentation at The Launchpad on Friday evening, Oct. 15. First demonstrating their choreography through a live performance, they also shared two short films and spoke in detail about the undertaking, to “disrupt the erasure of silenced stories.” As made evident by the “belonging conversation” hosted on the following afternoon, Wilkins and Turner receive the stories of their host communities with deep care.
The conversation was facilitated by Wilkins, whose attentive listening elicited truths of the land transcending any single participant — the legacy of mining sacred places (minerals and other riches), the blatant absence of persons indigenous to these valleys, the emergence of place-based “rituals” (to celebrate dandelions, potatoes and mountain majesty), to name a few.
With an artistic team in tow, materials gathered from these conversations will inform a “dance-quilt” stitching together a redefinition of what it means to be an American. Results from this multi-year project will include choreographies, a documentary film, a digital archive and a “toykit” (as opposed to a toolkit, humbly implying that the work can only hint toward fixing the intergenerational harms of history).
Part three of the weekend’s offerings was a Sunday movement workshop led by Turner, to process some of the stories and emotions that may have been churned up by the previous day’s conversations.
“The vastness of this project stands out, and the patience that’s required,” reflected Dance Initiative Executive Director Megan Janssen in conversation with The Sopris Sun. “It’s really unusual in this day and age to set out on something that’s sort of unclear, that blooms as it goes and is not super quantifiable in this moment. I really appreciate that.”
Janssen assures that Wilkins and Ryder will return to Carbondale as their work progresses. Meanwhile, Dance Initiative will continue to engage people of all ages, backgrounds and proficiencies in movement. Her vision is “that this mountain community, with so much access to incredible land and rivers, has just as much access and literacy with dance and art.” She continued, “as a common language we all get to share, not an elite privilege.”
The best way to stay apprised of workshops, performances and other opportunities is to join the Dance Initiative newsletter at www.danceinitiative.org
Courtesy photo by Carlos D. Flores.