Dance company addresses issues of race, enlightenment

Seth Wilson fits the description.

Wilson, a dancer for the past 10 years with Columbus Dance Theatre (CDT), is the central figure in the company's upcoming production, “Courage.” Not only is he suited to dancing the demanding lead role, which finds Wilson onstage for the program's full 70-minute run, plus a 15-minute prelude of sorts, but Wilson's own experience helped inform Artistic Director Tim Veach's creation, which has been updated for this presentation from its original 2011 premiere.

“He's the central focus of the work, which is about the self-actualization of a black man,” Veach said in an interview at a Westerville eatery.

The inspiration for the work stemmed from a 2009 incident involving Wilson and Columbus police following a performance.

“We'd just had a show, and in that neighborhood there were no street lights and there were a lot of break-ins happening to vehicles and the building itself,” Wilson recalled. “It was getting late, and we were cleaning up. I was taking garbage outside when I saw [a fellow dancer's car] getting broken into. I yelled at [the perpetrator] to stop, but they ran, so I went to try and follow them while we also called the police.”

After seeing the suspects get apprehended, Wilson, who had gotten into his car, returned to the theater and parked out front where he was approached by police.

“I was in front of building in my car and a cop drove up to me — he didn't have his lights on — and he jumped out of his car with a flashlight on me and his gun drawn and screamed, ‘Stop!' … I could see he was shaking, his gun pointed at me, and I was afraid … my life was over. I was going to become a statistic.

“My car was still on, so I just drove away. I was stopped a few blocks later [and] they took me out of my car. [They] took me down to the [station] and started asking me, ‘Where's the gun?' I was like, ‘I don't know what you're talking about.' They told me the same line I'd heard before: ‘You fit the description of an armed robbery suspect.'”

The Columbus Division of Police could not return comment in time for deadline.

Wilson, a native of Queens, New York, had a similar experience when walking home from teaching dance classes at a school in his neighborhood, in which he was approached by police, searched, questioned and told he “fit the description.”

“At that point, I was like, ‘Was I wrong to run?' I'm sorry, but it was intense. I never thought I'd be put in that situation, but you never know what you would do until you find yourself in it. I'd never had a gun held to me before,” Wilson said.

Wilson was charged with aggravated menacing and felony fleeing. The felony fleeing charge was later dismissed and the aggravated menacing charge was reduced to disorderly conduct. Wilson pleaded guilty and was fined $150, according to court records.

The incident struck a nerve with Veach, who created “Courage” in part to draw attention to issues of race and to offer a message of hope.

“I think this work might, shockingly, be even more timely now [than in 2011],” Veach said. “I'm amazed where we've gotten to: The polarization of communities. … The license people feel to say hateful things.

“The piece moves us toward a process of enlightenment. It doesn't necessarily come up with big answers, but it's about each individual person coming to love and own themselves.”

“As an artist, I want to touch people and bring them along with me,” Wilson said. “There is a lot going on in the media and in society right now, and you never know what people are going through. I just like to lift people up with my art and let them feel something.”

Based on the seven chakras of Eastern tradition, Veach employs the entire CDT company as either spiritual guides or others Wilson's character encounters on his path to enlightenment. The piece is set to original music performed live by the Carpe Diem String Quartet and includes a video element, with hate speech (in some cases, words uttered during the 2016 election cycle) juxtaposed against quotes about what it means to be courageous. Veach said “Courage” is not directly representative of events or individuals, but rather an abstract telling of a broad story through movement.

“I kind of developed a gestural lexicon for each section,” he said, adding that there are some very clear and obvious references in the choreography.

Wilson admitted that re-mounting “Courage,” knowing the incident from which it arose, brought back some hard memories and emotions. After first seeming to dismiss the notion, he stopped himself mid-sentence and took a deep breath.

“That was eight years ago, and a lot has happened in those eight years,” he said. “I have a child that's going to be three. When we started doing this again, I looked back and thought … ‘I wonder, if I would have stayed there [that night rather than fleeing], would I be alive and would I have a daughter?'

“Do I regret that decision [to flee]? No, I don't, because I have a daughter, and who knows what the outcome would have been if I didn't run?”