Helanius J. Wilkins is drawing closer to his inner dark spaces to cast light outward through dance.
Founder of Edgeworks Dance Theater in Washington, D.C., Wilkins is bringing his 2012 solo work, "/CLOSE/R," to CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Friday and Saturday (11/9 and 11/10). It's his journey of discovery to a place of discomfort, which yields moments serious and humorous.
"It's by far my most personal work to date," the Louisiana native, now in his 40s, says by phone from his home in the nation’s capital. "It sheds light on aspects that framed who I am in my experiences."
He developed the 90-minute modern dance/multimedia piece this year as part of his MFA studies at George Washington University. It's now part of Edgeworks' repertoire and current season.
"The initial inspiration for the work came from a place of revisiting the question, 'What is uncomfortable?' That tends to be a place I visit every so many years,” he says. “This time around, trying to answer that, I found it to be quite difficult, because I couldn't put my finger on what was uncomfortable anymore.
"Part of that is not necessarily that I feel I'm comfortable with everything, but when we are put into situations or when we do things that are uncomfortable, in the process of doing those things and achieving those things, we develop a level of comfort," he says. "So the things that I once noted or experienced as being uncomfortable pretty quickly, were no longer within reach."
He explores exhaustion, as it relates to persistence.
"My journey, and the journey of many, has been one of persistence," he says. "What does it take to survive, what does it take to find that second, third, fourth or fifth wind, to make it through. What does it mean to endure, to stay the long haul, to see something through. So that ended up being a reflection of life for me.
"In this place where you feel that you want to give up, you actually don't have the choice -- you don't have the option to give up," he says.
"The third and final part of the inspiration is shedding, looking at the human condition as a process of shedding layers, shedding skin, getting closer to the truth. For me, that in part gets me to a place of finding and returning to a place I call home, my raw dance, authentic movement, stripping down all learned, trained technique and form to find my inner dance."
Part of the rawness includes brief nudity and adult language onstage.
The evolutionary aspects of "/CLOSE/R" embrace an improvisational feel within an established framework, which Wilkins takes a step further.
"It's more about sensory work, and that is very different," he says, "because in sensory work, you are trying to recall information. So it's not what is happening in the moment, in terms of free-form, but it's trying to access information and deliver it in the present, so that is a very different take."
The framework embraces uncertainty, as well.
"There's music that changes and at any given time, the sequence of events can change, so it's a real in-the-moment dialogue that's happening."
He describes the music as eclectic, with some club beats, gospel and pop songs audiences might recognize, as well as original pieces created by his resident composer and collaborator, Sven Abow.
"When lyrics are included, they're very positive and uplifting," Wilkins says. "That's a base for me."
Wilkins, who formed Edgeworks in 2001, has been to Cedar Rapids before. He brought his full troupe to CSPS in November 2008. Local dancer Lovar Davis Kidd was so mesmerized that he sought out Wilkins afterward, seeking a way to join the troupe. His interest led to an intensive audition in February 2009 and two months later, he was dancing at the Kennedy Center.
Kidd was intrigued by Edgeworks’ concept of an all-male troupe of African-Americans dancing in a way that's very masculine.
"Oftentimes for me, the line gets blurred between the male dancers and the female dancers," says Kidd, 33. "It's appealing to see male dancers being male on stage. There's a time and place for more feminine movement, but finding that balance between being a male and being a dancer" is what drew him in.
"Also, it gave voice to a minority and to a minority in the dance world already -- being male and being African-American," Kidd says.
"It's a voice that's still often unheard," Wilkins says, "or a voice that's misrepresented often in the media, and all the other models and ways in which stereotypes can appear.
"With that being said, there is that place of not pointing fingers on the outside, but it's also about internal investigation. When are we victims and when are we perpetuators? I think that's important, and that's where one of the most important arms of Edgeworks stems from, and that's a place of social justice," Wilkins says.
"Edgeworks is designed to do three things: challenge the perceptions of men; build community by shattering stereotypes; and linking the arts to social justice."
A bonus for Kidd personally and professionally is that Edgeworks merges dance with theater.
"I got the opportunity to sing in a couple of performances," he says. "Bringing in a narrator and lighting that's really theatrical was really appealing to me and helped me navigate through my issues of just doing dance choreography."
Unlike others in the company, who relocated to Washington, Kidd stayed in Cedar Rapids and commuted monthly for rehearsals and performances. He connected deeply with a piece in which the dancers carried suitcases throughout.
"It was perfect for me," he says. "I was always going there, putting things into a suitcase and bringing back different takes on modern technique and how to communicate more clearly to dancers. And I was also bringing back a different take on how to be a professional dancer in a community that does not necessarily support dance."
He saw how Wilkins took his art to small venues and is making it work. That resonates with Kidd, who is the founder and artistic director of MOvMNT Dance Company, as well as a freelance choreographer and certified yoga instructor.
He also likes how Wilkins' choreography doesn't give audiences all the answers -- it leaves the door wide open for discussion and interpretation afterward.
"When audiences see it, they appreciate it because 1. it's just so beautiful, and 2. it leaves them thinking."