"Dirt", a screendance project created in June 2020, is a collaboration between choreographer Helanius J. Wilkins with videographer Roma Flowers, and composer Andy Hasenpflug.
Through the fusion of text, movement, layered visuals, and sound, this work presents a meditative exploration of identity and Blackness in a heightened time of unrest and uprisings fueled by issues of police brutality and systemic racism in America.
Helanius : https://www.helaniusj.com
This interview is with Roma Flowers, Helanius J. Wilkins and Andy Hasenpflug
1. The integration of movement, music, and visuals haunts us as the shadowy black and white images pass and dance before us. We are witnessing viscerally the struggle and pain of being Black in America, and yet there is life taking root that hints of change.
Is the message of "Dirt" one of despair, hope, or a mixture of the two? Or something else?
Roma: I began in the place of the text Helanius shared with me and conversations with him. He was drawn to the idea of dirt and we talked through its initially negative derivative ideations: “treated like, looked upon like dirt”, “walked upon like dirt”, “decaying into dirt”, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to dirt’s more mundane associations, the color of dirt (like the color of black skin), dirt that’s manipulated to make walkways and roads covered with asphalt. When the school where I work engaged that first covid hiatus, I used that newly emptied time to work in my garden and spoke of the idea of dirt also as a restorative, a source of nutrients and life, it’s texture beguiling to my bare hands, the welcomed presence of earthworms. The idea to render visually all those ideas with the idea of the black body and the violence that is perpetrated upon it, and yes, as you gathered, a sense of revival, of rejuvenation, of hope.
Helanius: In my imagining and approach to making this work, Dirt makes visible a fully sensory experience illuminating the complexity and resilience of being Black in America, an experience that is not easy. While not striving to offer a specific message – “message” was not a driver for me - a through line in the work is resilience as it relates to “birth/rebirth”. In this sense, the work reflects a journey that embodies both despair and hope, darkness and light, struggle, and growth.
Andy: To me, it is both light and dark, but not despair. The dark is honesty and struggle, not defeat. The light comes largely from the artistic fascination of the imagery, especially of the roots and the plants and how one thing impossibly transforms into another.
2. It’s evident that this work is very much a collaborative piece. It feels like a soul wrenching visual poem. How did all of your elements (movement, music, and visuals) come together? Was this planned out and structural, or more of an improv with free form?
Roma: We found ourselves at the very beginning of the pandemic and with the recent murder of George Floyd, with a heaviness in our minds and hearts. Forced into isolation, Helanius approached both me and Andy with this idea of collaboratively creating a dance video remotely (we were /are all in different locations Helanius in Boulder, Andy in Pittsburgh and myself in Fort Worth).
Andy started sending me short music clips that I would add prerecorded imagery as well as footage I recorded myself (imagery of Helanius had been gathered from either performance videos or improv video sessions he and I had held in Boulder a while ago and rehearsal footage David Dowling had shot) and submit back to the two of them for responses and feedback. I edited all my footage in response to my conversations, Andy’s scores and my own artistic impulses. It was a constant back and forth, with us progressively shaping the work with constant communications. I think were eight iterations before the final version.
Helanius: On one hand, Dirt emerged out of a long history of making artistic works that bridge the arts (dance) and social justice. My projects are rooted in the interconnections of American contemporary dance, cultural histories, and the identities of Black men. To do this work I engage in collaboration with artists from a wide range of disciplines, including film, video, music, and design. On the other hand, the making of Dirt was directly inspired by the onset of pandemics (COVID-19 and systemic racism) and my need to turn to art to make some sense of what was going on around me and for reflection toward healing. Specific to Dirt, my collaboration with Roma Flowers and Andy Hasenpflug involved a process that embraced both structure and improvisation. The structure was provided through being connected by the theme – the uprisings, Blackness, and identity, and a journey that lead to “birth” – which we considered through multiple conversations from different angles (societal, political, personal experiences, my memories of growing up in the south – Louisiana). Our conversations included linking to projects we have worked on together in the past and were working on alongside Dirt. The improvisation component came in “the how” our unique reflections and perspectives were able to allow us to complete each other’s sentences and create a project that holds space for reality, abstraction, navigating belonging, and potentiality.
Andy: As a (mostly) dance composer, my work is usually the product of someone else's vision and approval. Working with Helanius and Roma is one of the most truly collaborative teams of my career. I could count on one hand the number of collaborators that are as affirming to work with as Helanius and Roma. In this project, the artistic visionary (and movement creator) was mostly Helanius, but I came up with the musical structure and Roma made the real magic with the video and imagery. The music is not an improv at all.
3. What is your preferred way to show this piece? When I first saw the work - I imagined the film being projected in a gallery/museum setting with dancers performing among the projection. And when further researching your (Roma’s) work I saw that much of your work is projection/lighting design in performances. Is this piece performed live? And what is your idyllic way to present this work?
Roma: The original plan was to present the work as a Screendance/video art project to be streamed. We were well within the mindset of the socially distanced world during its creation. With that in mind, Dirt has been submitted to several Screendance festivals. More and more though, I’ve really come to regard it as a work of video art more so than pure Screendance, and to that end have also submitted it to experimental and video art festivals as well. Interesting that you imagined the work in a gallery/museum setting because lately I’ve been imagining that it would work wonderfully as a gallery/museum installation work though I haven’t yet pursued that platform.
Helanius: For me, the making of screendances is an organic extension of my art investigations and making. Although film and video has long been a part of my work, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on my work, and the performing arts in general, ignited a renewed interest in the creation of projects meant to be witnessed and experienced as screendances, and projects not necessarily intended to be incorporated into live performance. In this sense, I envision ideal spaces as museums/galleries, art houses, movie theatres.
Andy: Any way that looks and sounds good and people can focus on it.
4. What do you hope viewers will take away from this piece?
Roma: I hope viewers will regard the confluence of the imagery and the sounds as a truly evocative experience that is connected to contemporary and shared perspectives and that allow for that unique and singular space that the viewer occupies, that can resonate with the personal.
Helanius: Viewers will come to the work with different life experiences and relationships to understanding race. I can only hope that through this work I have created a brave and courageous space for considering experiences that may not necessarily be one’s own, and for confronting a slice of the realities of being Black in America in a way that hopefully yields awareness, self-reflection, understanding, compassion, empathy.
Andy: Certainly, the messages are powerful and thought provoking - So that, of course. But I do not believe that social meaning equals good art. A good piece could be about nothing, and a terrible piece might have a lofty agenda.
So, in addition to the message, I hope people take away as much as their commitment to attention, thought, and emotion can handle. I am proud of the imagination, technical skill, intelligence, originality, and artistry of every aspect of this piece. I hope people can be moved by that.
5. Can you tell us what you all are working on now? Do you have any projects on the horizon?
Roma: Helanius, Andy and I have an upcoming endeavor that will feature live dance performance (with projections) on the horizon called Kanaval.
Dance artists Tom Truss & Matthew Cumbie are in the beginning stages of developing a performance work based in part on the correspondence and relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne to which I will be contributing video projections.
A colleague of mine here at Texas Christian University, Dr. Suki John is developing a live dance performance work that follows the story of a Jewish family from their lives in pre-war Germany through the horrors of the Nazi holocaust with a view connecting that to other historical and contemporary manifestations of political persecution and genocide, e.g., Japanese American relocation, current US immigration actions, the plights of the Rohingya and the Uighurs. The plan is for the work to tour primarily to high schools in Texas. Again, I am contributing video projections.
Helanius: In the immediate moment I am working on an expansive, multi-outcome project, The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging, a dance-based geopolitical “quilt”, stitching together uncertain relentless trajectories to disrupt the erasure of silenced stories. Among the outcomes are choreographic works and a feature-length documentary film. In addition to this project Kanaval, an evening-length dance performance project that reunites me with the collaborative team of Flowers and Hasenpflug. I suspect that a version of this project will also lead to us creating a new screendance, particularly given the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andy: Happy to be working on another project with Helanius and Roma entitled Kanaval.
Also working with the choreographers Lindsay Fisher, Kari Hoglund, and Alanna Rygelski on dance films, and scoring a David Skeele horror film called The Margins. Can't wait to get back to live performance work when this pandemic ends!
Playlist (per Andy):
Andy's SoundCloud is : https://soundcloud.com/andy-hasenpflug
My favorite album of this year is Dizzy Strange Summer by Genevieve Artadi
and I have been listening to the band Africa Unplugged a bunch.
Roma Flowers, USA
Roma Flowers, Director/Editor, is a lighting and projection designer, video artist and filmmaker. A recipient of a New York Dance and Performance Award (aka “Bessie”) for her lighting designs, she has designed for Jordan Fuchs Dance, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, American Dance Theater, Jane Comfort, Creach/Koester Dance, DanceEXchange, David Dorfman Dance, Doug Elkins Dance Company, George Clinton, Jubilee Theatre, The Joan Miller Dance Players, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, David Murray, Meshell N’degeocello, ODC San Francisco, Otrabanda, Shapiro & Smith, Gus Solomons, Doug Varone and Dancers, Via Theatre, and Kevin Wynn. Recent theatrical and dance productions include Helanius J. Wilkins' A Bon Coeur, for which she was the recipient of a Knight of Illumination Award (KOI-USA) for her immersive projection design, Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre Company's production of TOAST, and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Resident Choreographer Robert Garland's Nyman String Quartet #2 for DTH. Her screen dances have been included in festivals in the US, Brazil, Canada, and Portugal. Currently, Roma is a faculty member of Texas Christian University’s School for Classical & Contemporary Dance.
Helanius J. Wilkins, USA
Helanius J. Wilkins, Director, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, is an award-winning choreographer, performance artist, innovator, and educator. He lived in Washington, D.C. for eighteen (18) years and founded EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, an all-male dance company of predominantly African American men that existed for thirteen (13) years (2001 - 2014). His honors include the 2008 Pola Nirenska Award for Contemporary Achievement in Dance, and the 2002 and 2006 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Project Award. He was a three times finalist for the D.C. Mayor’s Arts Awards and Bates Dance Festival named him their 2002 Emerging Choreographer. To date, he has choreographed and directed over 60 works, which includes two critically-acclaimed musical productions for Washington, DC’s Studio Theater – “Passing Strange” (2010) and “POP!” (2011). Foundations and organizations including New England Foundation for the Arts (National Dance Project), National Performance Network (NPN), the Boulder Office of Arts & Culture Public Arts Program, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts have supported his work. He is based in Boulder, CO where he is Associate Chair and an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Composer/Percussionist Andrew Hasenpflug started his career with the drum set, attaining success with the New York revival of “Tomfoolery” before embarking upon a master’s degree in classical percussion.
Since then he has accumulated an extensive list of credits in theater, dance, jazz, rock, classical, patriotic, and commercial venues. These include the US Air Force Band, Denver Contemporary Dance Co., Rosanna Gamson/Worldwide, Equity Library Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and jingles for Kroger food stores and Hoolihan’s restaurants.
He has worked as an accompanist for dance at the American Dance Festival, the Doug Varone summer intensive, the American Colleges of Dance Festival, Slippery Rock University, Columbia College Chicago, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, the University of Cincinnati, Helander and Co., Kim Robards Dance, the University of Colorado, SUNY Purchase, Marymount College, and the Lou Conte Studios.
Compositional commissions have come from the Seldoms, Dance Alloy, LabCo, Ursula Payne, Tom Truss, Jennifer Keller, Zephyr Dance Company, The Overture Academy Cincinnati, Chasala Dance Company, Helander and Co., and the University of Cincinnati. His teaching credits include The University of Cincinnati, Columbia College Chicago, and Slippery Rock University.
He has recorded with the United States Air Force Band, Rick Lisak Band, Sylvain Acher and Fabien, Divide by Pi, and Hasenproject.
Mr. Hasenpflug currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he freelances and works as the music director for the dance department of Slippery Rock University. In the summers Andy is the musical director for the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC.
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