Omari Wiles’ Les Ballet Afrik
Works & Process Pop Up Performances: “Take Me Back” from New York is Burning
New York, Guggenheim Museum
4 May 4 2021
Masked and standing at socially distanced stations on the spiral ramp that surrounds the rotunda of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum, we wait expectantly as audience members are slowly checked in. It’s wonderful when Les Ballet Afrik’s dancers, in their bright motley outfits, finally arrive below us, ready to dance, and wonderful when they dance. But first we have to survive the distortions of sound in this tall, hard-surfaced space.
Omari (Ousmane) Wiles wears high platform shoes, their bright green contrasting with purple in his costume, and speaks to us with a microphone, introducing “Take Me Back” in an indecipherable blur. Eventually I realize that the first three dancers, two women and a man, are competing in a ballroom voguing contest – all are so good and so individual that I’m surprised that Omari can pick a winner. That’s true too in the second contest.
“Take Me Back” is part of New York is Burning, which Les Ballet Afrik worked on in bubble residencies that the Guggenheim’s Works & Process program facilitated. The title is a salute to Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary that introduced the world to the ballroom voguing scene of gay and trans Black and Latino New Yorkers. Les Ballet Afrik is more diverse, with three men besides Wiles and eight women (who all seem to be genetically XX) of different backgrounds.
Their dancing reflects those backgrounds and that of Wiles, whose mother, renowned Senegalese dance teacher Marie Basse Wiles, and father, the late Anthony Olukose Wiles, a master drummer, founded Maimouna Keita, a Brooklyn-based school and company. From a lifetime foundation in Senegalese and other African dance, Wiles added modern dance with Ronald K. Brown, styles like house and afrobeat, and voguing from the ballroom scene, becoming a ballroom Legend. He now has his own House of Oricci. The ballroom scene is more diverse now, too, with houses around the planet. House of Oricci is competing on the current second season of Legendary on HBO Max.
“Take Me Back,” makes you forget, for a half hour or so, that you are wearing a mask. Different dancers come to the fore, with voguing sashays or quick arm slices, breaking moves, individual, or simultaneous – startling and satisfying when a group is on the floor, revolving together. Clusters of dancers dancing variously unify into handsome, unison patterns, like an arrow, for one – most attractive when seen from above.
While the company dances in those clusters and patterns, Omari Wiles disappears, returning in a more subdued sweatsuit-like costume of neutrals like gray and black. He does a spectacular solo of legs and arms moving in rapid contrapuntal thrusts and slashes, its African origins transmuted by other influences into the style Wiles calls AfrikFusion. The company takes over again in their AfrikFusion way, with two dancers in chartreuse and black dueting, and more bursts of individuality and unison patterning.
The company includes (and the pdf program has no bios, but gives all of their Instagram handles) Kameron N. Saunders, Shireen Rahimi, Kya Azeen, Karma Stylz, Yuhee Yang, Craig Washington, Eva Bust A’ Move, Milerka Rodriguez, Algin Ford-Sterling, Yuki Sukezane, and Alora Martinez – names that suggest their diversity. “Take Me Back” flies by. All too soon, they leave and return for bows, the last one a bow directed to Omari Wiles’ mother.
While Les Ballet Afrik live at the Guggenheim displayed a kinetic strength that is hard to capture on an outdoor video, you can get an idea of the company’s mix of voguing and other styles into its AfrikFusion from the video they made at Lincoln Center after their summer bubble.