We had the good fortune of connecting with Helanius J. Wilkins and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Helanius J., how does your business help the community?
The core of my work bridges art and social justice to bring together communities and give voice and visibility to untold stories. I use performance art, specifically dance, as a vehicle to depart from the tragic turns of inhumanity by illuminating a pathway for reflection, connectivity, and understanding. I place emphasis on inviting and reconnecting us to embracing, honoring, and celebrating difference by doing work that fosters dialogue, accesses difficult conversations, and creates moments that allow for honoring different aesthetic and cultural values. In doing this work, I help communities remember that our “American” identity is one that is shaped by hybridity, resilience, and co-existence.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Movement, for me, became a way for a very shy child who was afraid of people to express himself—to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, to have a presence. My body became my voice, and my actions were my words. My career today is a reflection of years of leaning into everything with curiosity, having courage to not turn away from uncertainty, embracing collaboration, not being afraid of risk, staying humble, and discovering failure as an entryway to new inventions rather than a closed door – an end point. “You have to be willing to stand on a mountain of NOs for one Yes,” are words I live by from the late and wonderfully multi-talented Black businesswoman B. Smith. In the varied roles I hold – choreographer, performer, producer, director/curator, educator, and activist – I am most proud of all the ways I invite and hold complexity as a way to deeper understanding about myself, others, and the world around me. I am also proud of the ways I have been gifted the opportunity through the creating and sharing of my own work to contribute to making a difference in the lives of others. I was raised with the understanding that my Southern heritage offers a rich resource for defining an “American” identity – one that is shaped by hybridity, resilience, and co-existence. This understanding has been an anchor in orienting myself in the world throughout my career and, in many ways, helped me to understand how people, communities and cultures use symbols as a vehicle for making collective meaning. Understanding this element of social life makes it possible for me to work within it as a point of leverage for social change. My choreographic projects involve a wide range of processes that include organizing and facilitating community workshops and roundtable discussions, building relationships, and volunteering at non-profit community centers that feed and provide social services for homeless individuals. These processes are most visible in the artistic projects I created with my Washington, D.C.-based, all-male company predominately made up of Black men, EDGEWORKS Dance Theater (2001 – 2014). Currently, my processes for making performance art render as radical interruptions. Instead of practicing more commonly assumed creative approaches to choreograph dance, I choose to centralize recuperation and upend traditional notions of preparation for performance while creating a vulnerable and resilient body. My approach transforms what could be seen as a linear piece into a durational work that illuminates depth and complexity. An ongoing process, rather than a utopia product, is revealed as the product. Very much in the way that I collaborate with artists from a wide range of disciplines, including film, video, and design to create one-of-a-kind experiences, I blur the lines with audiences to center nurturing connection, belonging, and building community. This kind of work requires embracing and celebrating difference and inclusivity. The heart and soul of my work is actioning by doing. At this point, my work in bridging the arts and social justice spans 20+ years and it has been a journey noticing how the shifting landscapes for the work has presented different ways of practicing and experiencing resistance and resilience. I am currently most excited about fundraising for, creating, and publicly sharing my latest dream project, The Conversation Series, a work that is anticipated to world premiere in 2022 in Michigan. It is revealing itself to me as not only a work that is meeting our present COVID reality, but it is of the moment. It also focuses on a duet, a structure for making work that has been a constant, and one I have been known for, throughout my career. The Conversation Series is an original, intermedia project where two male co-conspirators, one queer Black body, one heteronormative White body commit to collective laboring toward personal, political, and environmental (un)doing and (re)constructing. For the making of this work, I reject notions of hierarchy by preferencing the value of bodies coexisting –sharing weight, responsibility, and performance become the means for moments of recognition and transformation. The Conversation Series, matched with the collective commitment of Avery Ryder Turner and myself to each other, embodies the response that I believe is necessary for manifesting a more socially just America. From being born and raised in Louisiana to upstate New York to Washington, D.C. to all the shorter residencies in between and now Colorado, my artistic work – my life’s work – has never wavered from being rooted in wanting to make a positive difference. If I am able to make a difference in one life, then all the effort to make my work is worth it.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Five years in residence I am still discovering the Boulder/Denver-area and Colorado at-large. I still pinch myself whenever I walk outside and look around. I often say that living in Boulder is like living inside one of the most amazing photographs ever seen. The mountains, the sky, the endless open fields, and ever-changing forests of Colorado in general – they are all breathtaking and stunning reminders of the wonder that is nature. Different from the heavily populated urban hub that I transplanted from, there are many gems here. (Like really amazing gems!!!) In answering these questions, I want to note that I am both taking into consideration our present COVID-19 pandemic reality and dancing with visions of a post-pandemic future where we can return to various ways of physical gathering. I did not begin hiking until I moved here, and I have grown to love it – a LOT. Some of my favorite places to hike include the Enchanted & Mesa Trails, Button Rock Trailhead, Horsetooth Trail, Gem Lake, and Herman Gulch. With so many options for things to do in general, it feels hard to come up with a Top 10 list. Some activities I would definitely include are visits to Red Rocks – the cherry on top would be attending a concert while there, the Chapungu Sculpture Park at Centerra (the largest art center in the United States devoted to the stone sculptors of Zimbabwe), the Garden of Gods, the Paint Mines, the Denver Museum of Art, and taking in a Curious Theatre Company performance or a dance performance produced by the Department of Theatre & Dance on the campus of CU Boulder. An afternoon walk in the Rino and Sante Fe neighborhoods of Denver offers an inspired encounter with public art. Day trips to Estes Park or Breckenridge are also fun. With all these activities, I cannot help but think that an appetite for good eats would be in order. Is it okay to begin with desserts? Great! I love gelato! Gelato Boy on Pearl St. in Boulder and Chocolaterie Stam on N. Public Rd in Lafayette CO always hit the spot. And then, there is Gold Mine Cupcakes in Golden! Delicious! When hunger strikes, some cool restaurants with tasty food that I recommend are Salt (Boulder), Next Door American Eatery (Boulder), Spruce Farm & Fish at Hotel Boulderado (Boulder), Aloy Thai, Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant (Boulder), Tandoori Grill in the Table Mesa Shopping Center (Boulder), Earl’s (Denver), and Avanti’s Food & Beverage (Denver). Circling back around to our current pandemic reality, I cannot go without being mindful that some amazing restaurants have been severely impacted. Though we have loss some amazing eating spots, there remain plentiful options, many with delivery and curbside pick-up to meet this moment. I am surprised by the restaurants that I happen upon when least expecting.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have been encouraged, mentored, lifted-up, and inspired by so many people and experiences. I feel that every phase of my journey afforded me opportunities to gain new sources of support and inspiration from people to music to books to plays to fashion to advances in technology. To name a few special people who have been constants in the longer arc of my journey, I want to dedicate my shoutout to my parents (Antoine & Barbara Wilkins) who believe in me even when I do not always believe in myself, my grandparents up in a heavenly space watching over me who were pillars of strength and resilience, my siblings for keeping me honest, Susannah Newman – my longtime advisor – who wrapped her arms around me and said in response to the sharing of my dreams “Let’s go to work”, my colleagues who surround me every day with their kindness and brilliance, and my many, many collaborators (my current team Iain Court, Roma Flowers, and Andy Hasenpflug – super inspirational to me) for the ways we complete each other’s sentences to make artistic projects that challenges us to be innovative and even better humans.
Images courtesy of: Christopher Michael Carruth Watcheye Studios/Carlos Flores Mark Hoelscher Ian McMorran Elliot Whitehead, courtesy of ATLAS Institute