REVIEW: Helanius J. Wilkins presents a preview of “A Bon Coeur” at Atlas Intersections

REVIEW: Helanius J. Wilkins presents a preview of “A Bon Coeur” at Atlas Intersections
by Kacie Peterson

The stage lights were set in a deep blue as Helanius J. Wilkins moved around the stage while audience members filed into The Paul Sprenger Theatre at during Atlas Intersections Festival 2017 on February 26th.

Wilkins’ evening work, A Bon Coeur (French for ‘has good heart,’) was presented as a work-in-progress to a room of both his followers and new faces. A Bon Coeur is a collaborative project of Wilkins’ team of six. Three of those collaborators were in the house Sunday night: Andy Hasenpflug composed, arranged and performed the score; Roma Flowers designed the lighting, and created and edited the video content, and Kate Mattingly served as the talkback moderator.

In a pre-performance, almost meditative, practice, Wilkins rolled, flailed, and walked across the open floor to the sound of soft rain. He traced the edges of the stage, walking slowly, then disappeared offstage. The audience, waiting patiently, doesn’t seem to exist.

The rain stops, the theater doors close and we wait for his re-entrance. Wilkins reappears, the weight in his pelvis driving the momentum of his body. He stumbles around the stage, his arms out wide, which ripple in reaction to the decisions of his lower half. Wilkins’ haphazard pathways take him around the black marley floor in front of a projection of a window on the back screen. Outside the window lays lush green vegetation. Briefly overlaid on the images of green leaves are black and white photos and videos of drumlines marching down streets. The drumline becomes more than just an image, slowly taking over the sound of the theater, replacing the raindrops.

It’s obvious that Wilkins does not fear the backspace with his movement but embraces it. He doesn’t internalize the struggle by bringing movement into his body but brings his body to the movement. He reaches, he lunges, he carves with purpose. His focus has undeniable intent.

The images on the back screen become indiscernible. What was once a clear window is now a mass of blurred and burning images. The clarity is gone and Wilkins’ message is a tad unclear. I wish there was more detail to the images before they seemingly burst into flames. The sound score is also intentionally loud and overwhelming. It created a sensory overload and is almost too much to handle, perhaps that’s why the meaning is lost on me.

The sound of a storm captures our attention. Seemingly, Wilkins is both elements – the loose, flailing (and yet, invisible) lightning and the intense, shaking thunder. He stands, his hands clasped in prayer. The weight of Wilkins’ burden is heavy. His body is literally riveting, but he falls to the ground. Will he get up? He does, though I can’t help but wonder about the issues he’s carrying.

The power of Wilkins’s movement is his ability to shift the tone, which has taken place after he’s peeled himself back off the floor. The shift, while not overly dramatic, is enough for the audience to detect a small amount of serenity has set in. Wilkins moves calmly, sweeping through the space. While his pelvis once carried him through space, his pointed finger now leads the charge. Images of water caress the back screen.

Out of breath, and deservedly so, Wilkins finds his way to a spotlight downstage left. A voiceover, no doubt Wilkins’ own, begins a retelling of a meeting between strangers.

At first, I’m convinced the voice is referring to an old friend or past lover when ‘you’ is spoken. The voice mentions the ‘you’ while discussing decidedly southern colloquialisms with just a hint of a deep south accent. It’s evident that the monologue is the focus of our attention. Wilkins, too, has focused on the words and transformed from performer to spectator for the moment.

In stillness, Wilkins is even more vulnerable than when he stumbled ungracefully around the stage with his hands in the air. Wilkins transfers his weight from his front foot to his back, like a rocking chair on the front porch. Wilkins gets a moment to breathe; the sweat drips off his face.

The voiceover clues us into the who ‘you,’ the subject at hand, is. It’s the state of Louisiana. The mention of brown pelicans, and Cajun and Creole history were significant details. He’s describing the relationship between discovering himself and the impact of his environment.

Hasenpflug’s score fits Wilkins’ performance exquisitely, evoking images separate from those created by Wilkins movement, but in support and not contrast. The two elements work cohesively but remain individual entities. Hasenpflug integrates traditional sounds of harmonica and accordion with those of a rocking chair, rain, and other mechanical sounds.

Wilkins begins to sweep at the ground, as if clearing the dirt to plant a seed. Perhaps he’s planting the seed of himself, drilling deep into his own ancestral roots in order to continue growing. This section of choreography is particularly intriguing as Wilkins paddles his hands up against an invisible wall, seeing just how high it will go. Wilkin’s meticulous movement of the drilling, tracing, and moving create an invisible wall around the perimeter of the stage. Photographs of individuals, family weddings and porch swings create vibrant visuals.

It seems this wall is built for protection. My mind jumps to thoughts of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. This wall is meant to create a safe space. I think of the family photographs, the porch swings, the memories that were lost. The final image across the screen is poignant: A front door covered in plywood with a simple message, “We will be back.”

Wilkins’ movement tone has changed again. It’s lighthearted. Even in his face, so focused earlier, there is a hope, perhaps even the hint of smile. His dancing carries a joy of rebuilding and renewed energy. He dashes around the stage, seemingly gathering materials, creating new spaces from old ones. Wilkins is on the path to finding himself.

Wilkins’ work is largely introspective, built on his own journey of self-discovery. There’s an internal inspiration that, through Wilkins’ transparent process, we’re able to witness its creation every step of the way. A Bon Coeur is entirely enveloping experience with a visual and musical score that, while slightly overwhelming at times for myself, creates a full sensory experience. I appreciated Wilkins’ pauses in movement, which allowed me to focus on the other elements in his performance, without feeling as though I was sacrificing my focus on the big picture.

We learned during the post-show talkback that Wilkins and his collaborators are still very much in the development stage of the project. Additionally, Wilkins shared that in each performance, his moves and music are not pre-determined. Each performance is its own distinct mixture of movement, space, and sound. For example, Hasenpflug has created six more scores that were not used in the performance at Atlas.

By the time this work hits the Dance Place stage in the 2018-19 season, it will be a different viewing experience. Wilkins has a vision for the piece to be performed in a white-box theater, which will allow his vibrant and diverse projections to truly transform the space from both audience and performance perspectives. I imagine that not only will you be viewing the neighborhood, but you’ll feel like you’re walking the sidewalks, gamboling in the front lawns and parading down the streets.