Helanius J. Wilkins’ project aims to reflect ‘re-bodying belonging to become better ancestors’
Helanius J. Wilkins, assistant professor of dance at the University of Colorado Boulder, has won a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a choreographed duet intended to “heal and unite” and to reflect “re-bodying belonging to become better ancestors.”
Wilkins’ initiative is among 1,125 projects across America totaling more than $26.6 million that were selected during a second round of Grants for Arts Projects fiscal year 2022 funding, the NEA announced recently.
With the NEA’s support—and that of the College of Arts and Sciences, which matched the NEA grant with another $10,000 in funding— Wilkins’ and the CU dance division will collaborate with several touring, commissioning presenter-partners, including Basin Arts and Acadiana Center for the Arts in Louisiana and Keshet Center for the Arts in New Mexico.
The work is called The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging and is described as a multi-year, multi-outcome work that is “an ongoing and always shifting dance-quilt, confronting and celebrating heritage, resiliency, justice and hope.”
The work will benefit the participating dance artists, university students, faculty and broad and diverse audiences in Colorado, Louisiana and New Mexico, the NEA states, adding that the intended outcome is to support artistic activities and traditions “to strengthen the nation's cultural infrastructure.”
“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts and cultural organizations throughout the nation with these grants,” said NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson.
“The arts contribute to our individual well-being, the well-being of our communities, and to our local economies. The arts are also crucial to helping us make sense of our circumstances from different perspectives as we emerge from the pandemic and plan for a shared new normal informed by our examined experience.”
Wilkins said he was grateful for and humbled by the award. “This support is huge and one I do not take for granted, especially given that significant national arts funding is super competitive and limited,” Wilkins said.
The award affords Wilkins and his collaborators the resources to continue creative research and work that centers art and social change, and it encourages national visibility “which can be instrumental for cultivating new relationships and constructing new pathways for the continuation of the work more broadly,” he said.
Discussing his work, Wilkins said that his creative research is rooted in the interconnections of American contemporary performance, cultural history and identities of Black men.
“To this end, as I move through the world as a human and as an artist, I am anchored in my truth—my identity—and by my experiences as an American who is Black, male and queer. This anchoring in turn anchors my creative research and projects in questions about gaps in an America that (miss)sees the marginalized,” Wilkins said, adding:
“My projects examine the raced dancing body and ways ritual can access knowledge. My work—an intentionally decolonizing process that centralizes systems for care and repair and practice over ‘final product’—emphasizes how our actions generate sensory engagements that reconfigure our relationships to ourselves (and each other) and environments around us.”
To this end, as I move through the world as a human and as an artist, I am anchored in my truth—my identity—and by my experiences as an American who is Black, male and queer. This anchoring in turn anchors my creative research and projects in questions about gaps in an America that (miss)sees the marginalized.”
Wilkins said his work blurs the lines between art and social justice, adding that an aspect of how he uses dance to heal and unite is “to first ground myself, and those who join me, by creating brave and courageous environments built upon embracing that there is no social justice without the body. Dance, for me, is care work.”
Wilkins says to "re-body" a work is to give new body or a new orientation to “who belongs.” He added:
“I am anchored by an aspect of my upbringing where I was taught to understand that our ’American’ identity is one that is shaped by hybridity, resilience and co-existence. In a time of extreme political and social divisiveness, I am metaphorically ‘stitching’ us back together by drawing attention away from difference as a means to divide/separate but rather to heal and unite.”
Specific to The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging, Wilkins said his current work requires that he engage communities, with his duet-partner and co-facilitator, A. Ryder Turner (MFA in Dance, CU alum '21), in a series of community-engagements (Systems for Care & Repair) that consist of embodied workshops and community conversation gatherings about belonging.
He added: “Through the Systems for Care & Repair, dance becomes a vessel/portal for communities to engage in collective recalling/remembering, sharing lesser known and/or erased stories, actively dreaming and doing.”
The work will yield new choreographies, a documentary film, digital archive, and a diversity, equity, inclusion & social justice “toykit,” he said. “When traveling to each state, experiences in and with community becomes the source material for generating these outcomes.”
For more information on other projects included in the Arts Endowment grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.