Moses(es) has many layers of metaphor and suggestion, but the surface is always visually intriguing, musically imaginative
Moses(es), performed by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, March 27 through 29
By Marcia B. Siegel
The audience entering the ICA last weekend for Reggie Wilson’s extraordinary piece Moses(es) looked down on a stage floor covered by a thick mat of tinsel, and, as a backdrop, Boston harbor outside the window wall. Before anyone appeared onstage, I had time to imagine the tinsel had been arranged in the shape of a mandala, not just carelessly piled there. In silhouette the dancers filed in, eight people of different shapes and sizes. Reggie Wilson walked out and stood facing the audience, nervously opening his mouth as if about to speak, adjusting his clothes, shuffling on his feet. After a long time, he quietly announced the title of the dance. Then he beckoned the dancers to introduce themselves, which they did, one by one, mentioning how long they’d been working with Wilson.
We heard a Louis Armstrong recording of “Go Down Moses,” and Wilson began pushing the tinsel together and stuffing it into a large red wheelie. This took quite a while too, because the task was awkward. It became apparent that Wilson was dancing his task, giving an especially hard shove to the tinsel on the back-beat of Armstrong’s music, working to get it all into the wheelie.
After Wilson finished clearing up the tinsel, the dancers began to cross the floor in a diagonal lineup, humming a simple phrase. Wilson, now seated in a chair in a corner, played an antiphonal rhythm with a rattle, punctuated by his own voice and stamping feet. The dancers lay down, sometimes helped by one or two others, and rolled across the floor. There was an Israeli-sounding number playing; the dancers observed but didn’t reinforce its heavy downbeat.
One mysterious thing about Moses(es) is that, though the music is all-important, virtually no information is provided about it except a list of the groups playing. The score switches from jazzed-up spiritual to wailing Klezmer to drumming, clapping, chants, a Spanish-influenced dance band. It could be African or North American, contemporary or ancient. Since the dance goes on for an hour without stopping, we don’t always know which music is accompanying which part of the dance. I assume all of this was intentional.
In some of the generous online material available about this dance, Wilson says that he wants the piece to be “a lot,” for the dancers and the audience. Ideas crammed into the package, like the tinsel and the suitcase. His movement doesn’t look like any specific modern dance or “ethnic” dance, but it could have been drawn from elements of those, or anything. Resisting a catchall label, he calls his choreographic style “post-African/neo-HooDoo.”
Wilson’s work can seem cerebral, with its accompanying references to his travels, his readings, and his mathematical models. There’s a fifty-page section on Moses(es) in the current issue of TDR by dance historian Prof. Susan Manning, who served as dramaturge for the piece. But Moses(es) the dance isn’t lofty or esoteric. Like the opening sequence, it has many layers of metaphor and suggestion, but the surface is always visually intriguing, musically imaginative. The dancing is energetic and interesting, but not in the virtuosic, socko way of contemporary dance. I think the idea is to look spontaneous, “natural.”
One basic theme of Moses(es), along with the fusion of styles, is the communal interaction of all the performers. Wilson doesn’t dance, but he reinforces the recorded music from the sidelines. Two singers, Rhetta Aleong and Dwayne Brown, join in most of the dance sequences. At times all the other dancers have a sonic part to play. In their all-different red and white costumes that resemble everyday clothes skewed or tugged awry (designed with almost reckless imagination by Naoko Nagata), they contribute their own voices and clapping to the mix.
A lot of the dancing was like a game or a ritual that took more than one person to complete. People ran and launched themselves into the air, to be caught by one or two others. In one sequence, the dancers lined up and, one at a time, came forward doing their own variations, each possibly improvised and cued by the previous person’s turn. They leap-frogged over one another, sometimes ending on each other’s back. They lay on their backs, on their sides, moving their arms and legs, possibly replicating the main movement phrase. At some point, I thought the whole dance might have been based on extrapolations of the same one or two phrases.
When I first saw the piece at Brooklyn Academy in 2013, I was struck by how the group managed to look like a company without looking slick, in the manner of the Alvin Ailey company, for instance, or some African touring groups I’ve seen. In fact, they looked like individuals. They didn’t take great care to stay in precise alignment or observe the beat meticulously; each person semed to take on the music in his or her own way, even though a lot of the dance required them to act in unison.
Wilson has said that he knows Moses(es) is packed and layered. The elements may look as if they were selected at random, but I’m sure there was at least one reason for every movement and musical choice. I probably didn’t come close to unpacking all its riches. Still, I found it compelling at the same time it was provoking my curiosity.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University