Holding up a mirror to the audience with choreographer & performance artist Helanius J. Wilkins
Choreographer/Performance Artist Helanius J. Wilkins was wired to be a maker. Born and raised in Louisiana, Helanius watched a PBS Special on Black American choreographer Alvin Ailey and knew he found his calling. Today, he is an Associate Chair and Professor of Dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder and ran his own all-male, primarily-Black dance company, EDGEWORKS, in Washington, DC.
For this episode, How Art is Born host Alan sits down with him on the precipice of Helanius’s multi-year, multimedia, transcontinental project, The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-body Belonging. Together, they discuss Helanius’s efforts to build community and lift up marginalized voices in his work, never apologizing for your art (even when a project feels like a failure), their respective experiences as Black men in a predominantly white community, selfcare for the end purpose of larger change, and more.
Links mentioned in this episode:
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Watch excerpts from Helanius's 2018 project, A Bon Coeur: Pages From A Journal
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It!)
Helanius’s current project, The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-body Belonging
Follow Helanius on Instagram
Follow Helanius on Twitter
ABOUT HELANIUS J. WILKINS
Lafayette, Louisiana native and Boulder, Colorado transplant, Helanius J. Wilkins is a choreographer, performance artist, educator, and innovator. Wilkins's creative research and projects are rooted in the interconnections of American contemporary performance, cultural history, and identities of Black men. His projects examine the raced dancing body and ways ritual can access knowledge. He uses remembering to piece together and liberate Black identity through performance. Having choreographed 60+ works, honors include Pola Nirenska Award for Contemporary Achievement in Dance (DC’s highest honor, given by the Washington Performing Arts Society, 2008); Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Project (2002 & 2006). Foundations/organizations including NEA, NEFA National Dance Project, National Performance Network (NPN), DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and the Boulder Office of Arts & Culture Public Arts Program have supported his work. He founded and artistically directed D.C.-based EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, an all-male dance company predominantly of African American men that toured nationally and internationally (2001 - 2014). He is Associate Chair and a Professor of Dance at CU Boulder. He is a member of the National Board of Directors of the American College Dance Association (ACDA) for the Northwest region and was appointed in 2018 by Governor Jared Polis to the Colorado Council on Creative Industries.
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. Today, I'm joined by choreographer, performance artist, Associate Chair, and professor of dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Helanius J. Wilkins. Hello.
Helanius J. Wilkins (00:30):
Hello. It's my pleasure to be here.
R. Alan Brooks (00:32):
Yeah, it's good to have you. So I want to start with where are you from? Where were you raised?
Helanius J. Wilkins (00:38):
Yeah. I'm originally from Louisiana, born and raised. Lafayette, Louisiana, not too far away from New Orleans. Most people know New Orleans.
R. Alan Brooks (00:47):
Helanius J. Wilkins (00:48):
The city that never sleeps.
R. Alan Brooks (00:49):
Helanius J. Wilkins (00:51):
In the south. Yeah, I grew up there then eventually made my way to Rochester, New York and to Washington, DC. And now I'm here in Boulder.
R. Alan Brooks (01:03):
Ah, okay. Well, so at what point did dance start to be a thing for you? Was that always there or was there like a certain-
Helanius J. Wilkins (01:11):
Yeah, I feel like there are multiple responses to that question. Dance was always there. I am someone who feels that art is a calling, so I feel like I was called to do it. And when I learned about what it was, I was able to identify and say, "Oh, that's what's in me." And that's tied to an Alvin Ailey story, a PBS special. So I was very young and there was a PBS special on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and they were going to show Revelations. But prior to that, the show involved interviewing Mr. Alvin Ailey. And he said, "I'm Alvin Ailey and I'm a choreographer." And I pointed and I pointed, I was like, "That's me."
R. Alan Brooks (01:57):
Helanius J. Wilkins (01:59):
So that. And then I would say the third thing is that I'm wired to be a maker. I love putting things together. I find dance in everything. So when I landed the word dance, it became like the commonality that brought all the parts together.
R. Alan Brooks (02:17):
That's interesting. When I asked you this question it made me think about my own connections with dancing. So I had this distinct memory of being maybe 12, and I went to a party of other 12 year olds and it was like in my mother's friend's basement or something. And my mother comes down because we're all just sitting in there awkwardly because we don't know how to talk to each other. And she's like, "Y'all need to be dancing." She turns the music up and starts dancing and makes us dance. It was interesting because I didn't connect with dancing for a lot of my twenties, but what I came to realize was, I don't like nightclubs, but I like dancing. So I had to find places that weren't looking at my shoes to decide if I was going to get in. If I could just dance and enjoy myself.
R. Alan Brooks (03:05):
And once I found that, it suddenly became this really big part of my life.
Helanius J. Wilkins (03:08):
R. Alan Brooks (03:09):
I mean, for you when you are engaging in dance and when it's bringing in all those parts that you're talking about, what is the experience for you? What is it communicating? That's a big question.
Helanius J. Wilkins (03:22):
That's another big question. You're good at them. I guess, I would enter into this by riding off of what you just shared because there is something spiritual, there is something that is healing. There is something about letting down your guard and being totally in your wholeness. And my connectivity to that will liken to you. I'm not a big club person, but when I discovered house music, house was the place for me to be. The spot where house music was playing. I knew that everybody in that room was going to be there for the music and to be dancing from the time they get in to the time they leave. That's where I found my joy. So there's something very liberating about it and it also became a way to work through struggle and challenges, and even discover because when the weight is lifted off my shoulders, I can dream differently.
Helanius J. Wilkins (04:21):
And so, that sense of being in my body and being able to move and then being able to groove with the music, thinking about that, it was like a form of ecstasy, if you will. So there's that, but then in a different vein, growing up in the South, the thing that I often gripe about is being, "Oh, why isn't culture and arts more integrated into the way of life that is American life? And why is it looked at as entertainment, or being compared to sports?" Or whatever it is. Growing up, I felt it as a way of life, and so people connected through the arts, through dancing, through music, through cooking. It created the gathering, it created the bonds, it created capacity to do things in numbers. And so I hold onto that as well. And if I fast forward all the way to now, being an adult artist, that is something that is an anchor in my work, building community.
R. Alan Brooks (05:31):
Right. Huh. Well, that's interesting because it makes me also, like when you said about it being very spiritual, I thought about, okay, well actually between the gaps of that party with my mother, I danced in church a lot. And then I thought about, and I don't know if this was your experience, but for me growing up in the South, there was a lot of oppression around being Black and expressing emotion.
Helanius J. Wilkins (05:56):
R. Alan Brooks (05:58):
And so like the church is a place where you could safely do that, but if you do it out in the world, you could be arrested, killed, whatever. And so being able to connect with the dance floor outside of church is another place where it's safe to express emotion, vulnerability. And then the other thing when you're talking about, being able to work out things. So like for me as a professional writer, there'll be times that I'm trying to work out some aspect of a script or character, I'm stuck on it. I go dancing, I'll be working on my Michael Jackson spins, and then it'll come clear. I'll have to leave the dance floor and I type into my phone, "I got it."
Helanius J. Wilkins (06:34):
Yeah. Pushing a button at least in something.
R. Alan Brooks (06:40):
R. Alan Brooks (06:41):
Okay. Well, so then let me ask you about your school path. So was dance something that you immediately pursued in your studies?
Helanius J. Wilkins (06:50):
R. Alan Brooks (06:51):
Helanius J. Wilkins (06:52):
I found my way there. It's fascinating in the sense that I had that early connection, dance was definitely at the center of my life, but I often talk about myself as being a strategist and I'm like, I have a lot of interests and early on I knew the kind of work I wanted to make was not dance solely, but it was more multimedia based. And so my focus became on, what are the things that I want to be a part of this multimedia world that I don't know enough information about? So I ended up going to film school first.
R. Alan Brooks (07:25):
Helanius J. Wilkins (07:26):
And then I went on to-
R. Alan Brooks (07:29):
Where did you go to?
Helanius J. Wilkins (07:29):
Rochester Institute of Technology, which is what brought me to Rochester. At that time, Kodak was the space to be, and all of the equipment, all of the connections.
Helanius J. Wilkins (07:38):
And that was interesting too, because for me it wasn't so much about being this amazing filmmaker. It was, again, it was strategic. I wanted to understand the language, I wanted to build networks so that when it came time for me to do my work, I would have collaborators. That was the real interest.
R. Alan Brooks (07:56):
Helanius J. Wilkins (07:56):
In the time that I was there, I found myself interested in animation, which was funny, introversion here.
R. Alan Brooks (08:03):
Helanius J. Wilkins (08:04):
So I spent a lot of time in a dark room, drawing on the film for a little while because that became the thing I was most interested in. But then fast forward, several years later, when I went back to grad school, after being out of school for about 15 years and touring and having a company based in Washington, DC for 13 years, when I went back to grad school, the focus, I returned to film, I returned to the editing booth in relationship to dance.
R. Alan Brooks (08:34):
Okay, so before we started recording, we were talking about how people feel like there's just like one path to being in an artist. And we were saying that you can't predict them. They're a whole bunch of different paths. So I want to focus in on some of what you said. So you started with film. You dabbled in animation a little bit. How did you get from that to running a company?
Helanius J. Wilkins (08:55):
Yeah. That was a dream. The company was a dream, so that was always there. And so I felt like I was getting all of the parts of the company or getting some understanding about it, because I also took a lot of business courses. Again, the business had to function to do the thing I want to do. So it was that 3D picture I had in my head that I needed to know something about all these things to do the thing I wanted to do. But in a different way, making that direct connection, in relationship to your question, again, I saw movement. What I was making when I was making films, I was choreographing, it was motion. And so it was in the body. Drawing, it's in the body. So I was always moving and I was always thinking about how things are constructed and how they look in a frame.
Helanius J. Wilkins (09:47):
So I was essentially stage designing. And so I feel like all of that was feeding in to the very thing I wanted to do. Now while I was in film school, what was paired with that was coming across an instructor who was teaching a dance class at Rochester Institute of Technology, and I took the course as an elective and that was like, yep, that's the thing I should be doing for sure. I really want to do it. And it was interesting because prior to that, I actually spent a lot of time reading about dance. And so a lot of my first corrections was about the process between the beginning step and the ending point, because I knew the beginning from the diagram in the book and I knew where I needed to end up, I just needed the clarity in the middle.
Helanius J. Wilkins (10:34):
So, those are some of the first things that happened for me. And then after taking that class, it just kind of lit a fire and eventually I was taking classes seven days a week, and then eventually made my way to SUNY Brockport and continued the dance journey. And I walked into SUNY Brockport, I'll never forget it, my mentor to this day and dear friend, Susanna Newman, I walked into her office and I was like, "Hi, I'm Helanius J. Wilkins and I'm a choreographer." I claimed it. They hadn't seen me dance or anything like that. So it's like your options are either to wrap your wings around me and say, let's go to work or you question. She wrapped her wings around me and here I am today.
R. Alan Brooks (11:16):
That's pretty amazing.
Helanius J. Wilkins (11:17):
R. Alan Brooks (11:18):
Did you tend towards a specific type of dance or do you use different styles as tools to tell the story you want to tell?
Helanius J. Wilkins (11:24):
Yeah. Another amazing question. I struggle with labels, but probably what are the labels that would be placed on me would be modern dance, contemporary dance, multimedia work, intermedia now, and the distinction between that is that multimedia is any and all forms coming together, any combination of forms, but intermedia centers technology. So I need the technology to make the project work and the art needs the technology. So, there's a hand-in-hand conversation going on there. So I think those are the worlds I would exist in. But I've trained in a lot of different forms and I feel like the path to doing what I do is taking what I've learned, but also of deconstructing it and watching everyday life, because I'm inspired by what's going on in the world, how I see the world around me and how I'm impacted by that, how others are impacted by what's happening in the world.
R. Alan Brooks (12:28):
Huh. So this isn't a hundred percent true, but I would say largely, art for the artists can be divided into two categories. The first would be some type of expression of our own emotion. The second would be trying to communicate something to someone else. So what's important to you when you're creating? Are you trying to communicate something or is it that you're trying to have a cathartic experience yourself?
Helanius J. Wilkins (12:52):
Yeah. Fantastic question. [laughter]
R. Alan Brooks (13:00):
I know. I come with them.
Helanius J. Wilkins (13:03):
And it's particularly fascinating, again, in this moment that I'm holding right now because I'm at the beginning phase of a brand new project, which has a very long title. "The Conversation Series: Stitching The Geopolitical Quilt to Re-body Belonging." And it's a project that found its momentum in the height of the pandemic and it is my way of actioning the change I want to see and stitching our lives back together again, across the nation. And so there's something, even in saying that to get to responding to the question you raised, there's something about that that I almost remove myself from only thinking of myself as a dancer or a dance artist, because what I'm doing is larger. And dance is the vehicle to do that other thing.
Helanius J. Wilkins (13:59):
And so the greater majority of my career has been rooted in social justice and actioning and bringing the voices that are on the edges to the center, creating opportunity for spaces and spaces for untold stories to be revealed or lesser known stories to be revealed. Also, dismantling, challenging stereotypes, specifically Black men. My company, EDGEWORKS, is an all-male dance company, primarily Black men. And when I'm looking at all of those things, there is me in there. And so yes, there's something about me creating the space, and me having a space to heal, to exist, to find a new path. But I don't make my art to be in service of me either, because I'm really interested in community. And even with, again, this new project, I'm thinking about community is here and on top of communities, belonging.
Helanius J. Wilkins (15:10):
And I want belonging. Because we can all be in a community and feel like we don't belong.
R. Alan Brooks (15:13):
Helanius J. Wilkins (15:14):
So how do we get to belonging? So, again, it becomes larger than me and the work that I feel like I'm doing is stitching and threading and weaving and finding collective voices, collective strength, collective vulnerability. So in that communication part, the second part of your question. Sure, I can say there's a desire to want to communicate something, but in a different way, I'm wondering if it's about me creating an opportunity for people to see a reflection of their lives and of themselves to be in conversation with me rather than to watch me communicate something to them.
R. Alan Brooks (15:56):
Yeah. That's really interesting. Okay. You and I, we were talking about the weekly comic that I do. So, that engages largely with a lot of social issues. And one of the things that's important for me is to not present myself as having the answers.
Helanius J. Wilkins (16:13):
R. Alan Brooks (16:14):
Yeah, mostly just raising a question, holding up a mirror, allowing people to consider things in a different way. And what you're saying about the stitching, I felt like a very sort of kindred thing there, because there's this thing that I've been saying that for a couple years, but basically all the "isms," racism, sexism, ageism, they come from either an intentional choice or an accidental to not see the other person's humanity. People who have made an intentional decision. I'm not really trying to reach them. They've decided. But the people who just haven't had the chance to experience someone else's humanity, art is such a powerful way to give them that opportunity.
Helanius J. Wilkins (16:53):
R. Alan Brooks (16:53):
So, before I knew any trans people, when I was reading comics by trans people, suddenly I could understand their experience in a different way. You know?
Helanius J. Wilkins (17:02):
R. Alan Brooks (17:03):
And it seems like, essentially, it's communicating compassion and humanity.
Helanius J. Wilkins (17:07):
Absolutely. Yeah. I'm right there with you. The project again, Conversation Series, I write a lot about it being me figuring out how to walk again. So how can we take something, an everyday action that we take for granted and put that underneath the microscope and realize that there's a lot that's involved in being able to do that. But just doing that, being able to put one foot in front of the other and doing that with curiosity allows for seeing differently, allowing for a new perspective, allowing for being a student, allowing for being willing to listen.
R. Alan Brooks (17:50):
Okay. So, when you put together these shows, obviously dance is involved, technology and multimedia, I assume, are you trying to take people through like a clear story or are you just trying to sort of evoke an emotion that makes them consider something, or both?
Helanius J. Wilkins (18:06):
Yeah. I feel like it's a combination of both because I'm definitely like, there's an aspect of me that's narrative driven, but not necessarily linearly. I often look at my works as collages. They're vignettes that are pieced together that give you a way into an experience. And I'm very interested in transporting people. So how can I create a landscape that makes you almost forget you're in a theater space, and that you're suddenly there with me? A project I did in 2018, A Bon Coeur: Pages From A Journal. And "a bon coeur" means to do wholeheartedly, or good heart, which is a Louisiana term. That work, I use like multiple projectors and I went from being in a field of sugar cane to being in a row house in New Orleans.
Helanius J. Wilkins (19:00):
And so, when people saw that, they saw me transported into those spaces, but they were brought along. And so, suddenly the feeling of the experience was different. So there is that. But I feel like I want people to be able to question, I want them to be challenged. I want them to see a reflection of themselves. I want them to see how their thoughts and perspectives align or cross, or merge with other perspectives. So there's something about landscapes that I'm creating when I make my work. And there's definitely like a deep space for reflection, but there's also entertainment in this. You're coming to see a show. And so yeah, that entertainment would be the joy and the happiness. The arc of life is all of that. It's not one thing. So I feel like I try to embrace the human experience as you were talking about earlier.
R. Alan Brooks (20:03):
Yeah. No, it's cool that you say the entertainment part, because no matter how important my message is, if people aren't being entertained, there's really no show. They're not showing up. I might as well just write a manifesto.
Helanius J. Wilkins (20:14):
Exactly. But where we get them or where we can get them is the how of the entertainment. Sometimes people might think like, "Oh, I'm coming to sit back and be a voyeur." I'm like, "Come here."
R. Alan Brooks (20:25):
You're a part of this.
Helanius J. Wilkins (20:25):
You didn't realize you're invited to the stage.
R. Alan Brooks (20:30):
Are you familiar with Melvin Van Peebles?
Helanius J. Wilkins (20:33):
R. Alan Brooks (20:33):
Okay. So there's a documentary on him called, How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).
Helanius J. Wilkins (20:39):
I have not seen it, but I've heard of it.
R. Alan Brooks (20:42):
It's great. I think it's on Prime right now.
Helanius J. Wilkins (20:45):
R. Alan Brooks (20:45):
Yeah. But the reason I bring it up is because, I think he might be in his nineties, but he has a very similar approach. Like the message that I want to express is most important and whatever the medium is is going to change. Whatever's the best one. He went from film to Broadway, and he recorded albums. He just did all of this stuff and it's really worth watching. It's constantly inspiring to me in terms of his determination.
Helanius J. Wilkins (21:14):
R. Alan Brooks (21:15):
Yeah. Right on. All right, so you mentioned seeing the world, observing people inspires you. Has the way that you've been inspired to create, has it changed, the things that inspire you over time?
Helanius J. Wilkins (21:27):
I want to say yes. I want to say yes. I feel like this is taking me into reflective space. But I want to say yes, because consciously or subconsciously, I'm reacting and I'm responding to what I'm seeing. And that information then becomes woven into whatever I start to do. So I could think I'm going into the studio with a blank canvas, and I'm not, I'm carrying all of that with me. So I lean into being influenced, and that those shifts happen. And most certainly, some of that influence is maybe the gateway, it's the way in. It's that "aha" moment. So it's not that it suddenly changed something drastically for me, but it gave me the way of being able to enter into doing the work. I'm like, it's there, but I don't know how to access it or can't get to it or I'm not quite sure what it is yet. And then something will happen and I'll be like, "Oh, that's what that is."
R. Alan Brooks (22:29):
Hmm. Yeah. All right, we'll change gears a little bit.
Helanius J. Wilkins (22:30):
R. Alan Brooks (22:30):
Because we're talking about the journey of being an artist, I think it's important to talk about some of the times when something didn't work out. Right? Like, when something [crosstalk 00:22:41].
Helanius J. Wilkins (22:41):
A lot of times.
R. Alan Brooks (22:43):
Helanius J. Wilkins (22:44):
More times than people see. They only see the times when we're succeeding.
R. Alan Brooks (22:48):
Yeah, right. I think that's why it's important, because with people trying to figure it out, they think one failure means they should stop. Is there a particular one that you feel alright sharing?
Helanius J. Wilkins (23:00):
There's a project I created in 2008 that is like my nemesis, talking about it. And that project, what was brilliant about it is that it took about two years to make. At that time, it was the most expensive project I had ever produced, and it was the project I had gotten the most funding for. And I walked away understanding what my process for making was, so that was a really big gift. I'm like, "Oh, this is why I organize these community discussion groups. This is why I do this. This is why I'm very specific about the inner makings of who's in the work and how I design all of that." So, I walked out with my head held high in that regard. The show regard and the final quote unquote product, what a nightmare.
Helanius J. Wilkins (24:01):
I just wanted it to be over, and it was like nothing I could do to save it. It looks beautiful, but I was just struggling with it. And I will never forget, I had this phone conversation with a venue presenter who had been following me for a few years, she's very interested in my work. And that's usually the process, nurturing relationships. So much is about process. And this was her time to finally see something live because she'd only been seeing videos and all these other things and all those other projects were really great. And there was this one that she saw and it was not the really great one. And so she is talking on the phone and she's trying to find the words to say, this was not good. I embraced, I accepted. But I also said, "Well, I can't apologize for my art because this is just what came out." But that was probably a moment that was probably one of my lowest moment. I'm like, "I cannot save that project." But it's actually given me a lot.
R. Alan Brooks (25:13):
Okay. Thank you for sharing that.
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:15):
R. Alan Brooks (25:15):
So you were able to eventually come to a point of recognizing what positive thing came out of it.
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:20):
R. Alan Brooks (25:20):
But at that point where you didn't have that yet, were you afraid [crosstalk 00:25:25].
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:25):
It was just easier to hide.
R. Alan Brooks (25:25):
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:29):
It was like, "Take a break."
R. Alan Brooks (25:31):
Yeah. I wonder about how you found your way out of the negative place. You know what I mean?
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:37):
That's a great question because I actually feel like I don't live in that negative space when it comes to my art for too long. And it's because my approach to art is that I'm always in process. And if I'm always in process, I'm going to fall, and then I have to get back up to stay in process. Otherwise, I can't claim that I'm always in process.
R. Alan Brooks (25:57):
Helanius J. Wilkins (25:58):
So the rise and fall, I'm always thinking about how things are stacking up and what they're teaching me and how it gets me to the work I'm ultimately striving to make. A colleague of mine once said in her own words and I probably have a different way to say this, but when she said it to me this way, I was like, "Oh yeah, that's exactly it." She said, "We spend our career making the same piece over and over again."
Helanius J. Wilkins (26:20):
And there's some truth in that because you're on this journey to keep diving deeper into something. And at the base of it, the things you hold dear to you, community, vulnerability, strength, building bridges, it's all there in all the work, but I don't have to lead with that. That doesn't have to be the means to make the work because it's already all there.
R. Alan Brooks (26:43):
That's really interesting just to think about being always in process.
Helanius J. Wilkins (26:45):
R. Alan Brooks (26:47):
Okay, so in terms of protecting myself of as an artist, rule number one is never read the comments.
Helanius J. Wilkins (26:54):
Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (26:55):
I don't do that at all. Like, there could be great, like, I can read like 600 great ones and then I'll get one negative, and that one negative one stays with me.
Helanius J. Wilkins (27:02):
Yeah. And you forget all the other ones.
R. Alan Brooks (27:06):
Yeah. So I'm like, why even do it?
Helanius J. Wilkins (27:07):
My advisor, Susanna, again, it's still on my refrigerator to this day, her response, her saying to me was, "Never believe what's written about you and always read between the lines because what's not being said usually that's where your questions are for yourself. So if you agree with something, that question is already in you. If you don't agree with something, you can just let it pass."
R. Alan Brooks (27:34):
Huh. Yeah. I don't like to live by memes, but there was one that I had to, and it was, "Don't accept criticism from people you wouldn't accept advice from." And I really like that a lot because there's a whole bunch of armchair critics for stuff.
Helanius J. Wilkins (27:49):
Oh yeah. I'm like how often we find ourselves in those situations and it's not to say that they aren't brilliant in their own ways and their minds, perhaps aren't opening up landscapes for us, but it's like, "Okay, if you really feel this way, let me see you make that dance." Sometimes I want to say that. But it's a thing, and I think it takes all of those exchanges, really for us to find our way, however we do it. That's a curiosity piece for me and if I'm coming back to being the observer in my journey, then that's part of it. I may not necessarily be reading the comment, but I'm observing everything that's around me. And all of those responses and interactions is giving me information.
R. Alan Brooks (28:38):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay, so you're at a particular place in your journey as an artist. You have this experience, you've been able to build your art in different states and different forms. And now you're at a place where you have students. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Helanius J. Wilkins (28:58):
R. Alan Brooks (28:59):
I think through the lens of you, working with students now, that even becomes more interesting.
Helanius J. Wilkins (29:05):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Helanius J. Wilkins (29:08):
The common denominator, that always comes out easily. Definitely the first thing I say is, be a student for life, because at the moment you think you know it all, that's when everything sort of stops. And I feel like what I'm channeling in that is curiosity, that's what I'm interested in, and that's how I see students make their way through and have breakthroughs. It's almost like returning to our childhood or inner-child when you could be fearless, and you don't have all the information about what's right, what's wrong, what's good, quote unquote, what's bad. And then you're willing to try anything. "How far can I push that glass of water before it drops? And will I get in trouble?"
Helanius J. Wilkins (30:03):
So I feel like some part of the journey is tapping into your inner child and keeping that really close, so that play can be the means to make and not being locked in serious and trying to do this, because then sometimes you can't cut through that. But if I can experiment and I can play, I cannot hold myself to being all knowing, which I'm not. Then there's more possibility.
R. Alan Brooks (30:42):
Yeah. That's interesting because I hear in you describing your passion for your work and your thoughts about it, this kind of theme of, I'm going to call it challenging convention, but I will say that it doesn't seem to be challenging just for the sake of challenging. It seems to be like, you want to communicate to people differently. So they come with expectations to your show, you take them out of those expectations. With that said, what's next? Where do you want to head next? What visions do you have? Another big question. I know.
Helanius J. Wilkins (31:15):
Well, it's good timing because of this project. The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-body Belonging, I feel like it's the next chapter of my life, and it's not solely another two year process. And I feel like it's emerging of the past 30 years of my career because it's a series of new choreographies, but it's also featuring documentary film. It's a digital humanities living archives, and through the ways in which I will be making these parts, it will yield a justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility toy kit. "Toy" intentional, because tool means to fix. I'm not a fixer. I don't want to go into communities and fix, but I want to go in communities and be in and with and explore and figure out how we can navigate creating means to activate the change we want to see.
R. Alan Brooks (32:24):
Helanius J. Wilkins (32:25):
And this work requires that I go to all 50 states and all five native territories to create a section of the work. So like the first phase of the process is definitely seven to 10 years of making, so that's the journey I'm on. It's the uprisings, it's the COVID pandemic and how it impacted so many, myself included, but in different ways and how it brought even more to the forefront mental illness and self-care, but also community care. What does that mean? I think so often the conversation stops at self-care, but the self-care for me is about being able to get to community care, change. Something bigger. So my vision is super big and I want to do it in and with communities. I don't want to do it in the studio.
R. Alan Brooks (33:27):
It sounds beautiful and audacious. I love it.
Helanius J. Wilkins (33:30):
Yes. We'll check back in again.
R. Alan Brooks (33:32):
Right. On a side note, I was thinking about when you were saying the conversation ending in self-care, in a lot of cartoons and movies I watched when I was a kid, quicksand was like a constant thing, it felt like it was going to be a much bigger part of my adult life than it actually is. Right?
Helanius J. Wilkins (33:49):
R. Alan Brooks (33:50):
But I remember hearing this thing of, if you're in quicksand and your friend's in quicksand, you have to get yourself out before you can get them out, because if you're both in, you're trying to push them up, you're just sinking faster. So you got to pull yourself out and then extend a branch or something to pull. And how you were talking about your art having a degree of self-healing, but also working towards the bigger things, the things of community and reaching people. It's cool to see all of those things come together as you talk about the stuff you work on. I'm excited to see how all of these things take shape. It sounds really cool.
Helanius J. Wilkins (34:29):
Thank you. I'm definitely super excited about it. And it's beautiful for me to be in a space of total opposites: complete uncertainty and clarity. Clarity is a drive in that I am committed to being a soldier for change. But then the uncertainty is the how of how people will respond. What will it mean to work in and with community? But I'm not afraid of it. I'm ready, and I'm ready to meet others. I got these hands, this body and one foot to place in front of the other, and everybody has that.
R. Alan Brooks (35:18):
Hmm. Okay. That was such a good statement. I was like, should we end on that? Because it really was. It's really good.
R. Alan Brooks (35:30):
But I guess I still have a couple more questions. I wanted to ask about how you envision the scale of this project? Are there going to be a lot of people involved? Because you're talking about communities.
Helanius J. Wilkins (35:42):
Yeah, yeah. There will be a lot of people involved. I have what I call a primary team of 21 people surrounding me, but to do this work in and with communities, every place I go, there will be teams of people and communities being brought together. And so there will be a lot of people involved. But it will be through the lens. The actual dance work is a male duet. Myself and I'm dancing with a dancer named Avery Ryder Turner who, speaking of students, I met him while a grad student and our CU program.
R. Alan Brooks (36:18):
His initials spell out ART?
Helanius J. Wilkins (36:20):
And his initial spells ART. [crosstalk 00:36:22].
R. Alan Brooks (36:21):
Helanius J. Wilkins (36:25):
It's perfect. Perfect. We started working together during his journey and it led us to making a couple of other pieces and those pieces led us to this, in a couple of different ways.
Helanius J. Wilkins (36:42):
But the one that I do want to pull forward is that in the height of the uprisings and I was feeling this lack of stability and questioning, afraid to walk in public and all of those things. And looking at my surroundings differently again, because in Boulder I'm definitely like, it's very homogenous. So, I could potentially go a couple of days without seeing another person that looks like me, so that's a real thing. And sitting with that, and I shouldn't say sitting because again, how I respond to adversities to action. So what I started to do was walk on my own because I was also afraid to be in large crowds because of the COVID, and my introverted being and all the things.
Helanius J. Wilkins (37:35):
So my way to be in solidarity and to protest and to find meditation was to go on my own walks where I was walking up to 16 miles a day on my own. And it was intentional and it was at the same time. And it was the same path because it was larger than just the walking. It was wanting people, my neighbors to recognize that I'm a part of the neighborhood, not a stranger passing through it. And so, even that progression was interesting because at a certain point, people did start to say good morning to me, and I started to say good morning back. Then eventually a name was exchanged. Whereas before it was like, who was this person in the neighborhood? And they were doing their rituals and going through their daily things at the same time, be it working in the yard or sitting on their front porch.
Helanius J. Wilkins (38:22):
But now we had this sense of exchange that was changing my sense of self within the neighborhood.
R. Alan Brooks (38:31):
Helanius J. Wilkins (38:32):
And so that was part of it for me. And then the other thing that happened in relationship to Ryder was that I was like, "Wait a minute, there's this thing happening." Not that anything is wrong with it, so just call it a thing. But everyone was reassessing what does it mean to make room and to turn the tables to, you know, right wrongs. And in a lot of those cases, it meant to leave, resign from positions, give positions to people of culture, black and brown bodies. And I sat with that, and while in some cases I'm like, "Yep, that's great. That's wonderful." In other cases, I'm like, "Wait a minute, this is still privilege, because now you're excusing yourself from the conversation and you can go and not have to deal with it still."
Helanius J. Wilkins (39:22):
And so then I'm working with Ryder and I'm like, "Wait a minute, we are set up to do exactly what I want. I want you to come. I want to pull you to the table with me. I want you to do the work with me. I don't want you to leave." So that became like a light for understanding what I really wanted to do. And then it feels like a full circle moment, because as I shared with you before, I had an all-male dance company in Washington, DC, so my work was always focused on showing men as both being strong and vulnerable, dismantling the stereotypes around dance not being a place for men. So all of that sort of comes full circle, that was how I was coming back to a duet, a male duet to do this work of actioning.
R. Alan Brooks (40:10):
Yeah. No, that sounds really dope.
Helanius J. Wilkins (40:13):
R. Alan Brooks (40:14):
Yeah. My early experiences with Boulder when I moved here, the times that I went up there, at the time I had like a big Afro still. And so I could walk into a place and I could feel like, "Aha." All of that. Nobody touched me.
Helanius J. Wilkins (40:28):
Yep. And nobody touching you?
R. Alan Brooks (40:31):
I could feel basically all the white people suck all the air out of the room, but it was an interesting thing because they were excited that I was there. But it was still a little dehumanizing. It was like the flip side of the racism coin, because they still weren't seeing me as a person, they were seeing me as almost like this action figure they could collect. And there was just a lot of giddiness like, "Oh cool. Black dude." And so, it's interesting to hear your story of sort of humanizing yourself to your neighbors, which even just the idea that you have to launch out into doing that says a lot.
Helanius J. Wilkins (41:07):
R. Alan Brooks (41:09):
Well, so then for anybody who wants to follow you in your work online, where would they go?
Helanius J. Wilkins (41:16):
So I have a website, which is my name helaniusj.com. And maybe I should spell that out.
R. Alan Brooks (41:25):
Yeah, yeah. Do it.
Helanius J. Wilkins (41:25):
H-E-L-A-N-I-U-S, the letter J.com. Also, you could find me at Facebook, Helanius J. Wilkins. Instagram, same thing. My name is so unique, you'll never find another. You'll type in my name, and I will pop up. Yeah. If you go to my website, most certainly I encourage people to join my mailing list. I send out monthly e-newsletters and another thing that happened during the pandemic in terms of me actioning and mobilizing for myself to find some sense of groundedness, I started writing and sharing more of my writing. So I started a blog.
R. Alan Brooks (42:10):
Helanius J. Wilkins (42:10):
And so, generally, one once a month I put out a new blog, but every once in a while, I skip. So those two things go out almost every month.
R. Alan Brooks (42:21):
R. Alan Brooks (42:22):
Hey, Helanius, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Helanius J. Wilkins (42:25):
R. Alan Brooks (42:25):
It's really cool.
Helanius J. Wilkins (42:26):
It's a pleasure. Pleasure talking with you.
R. Alan Brooks (42:30):
R. Alan Brooks (42:36):
Thank you to today's guest, Helanius J. Wilkins. Visit mcadenver.org/podcast to learn more about his work. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe for more and leave a review. It really helps us out. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there, too, for behind-the-scenes clips that don't make it in the episode.
R. Alan Brooks (42:59):
How Art is Born is hosted by me, R. Alan Brooks, Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor. Courtney Law is our Executive Producer. How Art is Born is a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.