By Marcia B Siegel
There’s hardly a minute in this hour-long show that isn’t stirred by singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming.
Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group: POWER, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, through February 20.
Many dances have been inspired by the visionary Christian sect the Shakers, who danced their way to heaven and were led by female elders. Reggie Wilson’s version is the only one that pays tribute to a black Shaker, Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871). The New York–based Fist and Heel Performance Group brought that version, POWER, to the ICA last weekend; it premiered last summer at Jacob’s Pillow.
A brainy choreographer whose research takes him into the crannies of religious and cultural history, Reggie Wilson doesn’t have a dance style so much as a look. Each choreographic project yields an energy, compounded differently from his sources. For POWER he adopted the documented moves of the Shakers — the whirling, the treading steps, the hands that shake sin into the earth and lift to receive heaven’s gifts. These are set alongside dance moves of Africa and the Caribbean, and the chants, laments, and praise songs of American slaves.
Above all, POWER is about music.
There’s hardly a minute in this hour-long show that isn’t stirred by singing, clapping, stomping, and drumming. Most of the music begins with recorded tracks by folk and contemporary music groups, reinforced and embellished by Wilson and the dancers. In indigenous cultures from Japan to Kenya to Haiti, the music isn’t separate from singing and dancing; performers can do all of it. POWER begins with a quiet muttering in the dark. Wilson appears upstage left. He walks slowly around piles of fabric on the floor, picks them up in bunches and carries them cradled in his arms like babies, spreads them out on the floor, and moves to a bench. He’s singing softly, then louder, then shouting, his voice miked to match the recorded track. He sits, facing upstage, and changes his shoes, still singing.
Those fabrics, only a few of them sewn into clothing shapes, become a storehouse full of costumes as the other dancers drape and wrap them around themselves. The costume changes may be meant to transform the dancers into different characters, but this dance isn’t referential in that way. Wilson scatters the specifics, muffles the words. All the practical movements are slow, thoughtful, as if the performers are considering, even cherishing, their own actions. But the action isn’t personal so much as corporate, part of a larger scheme.
The music too is depersonalized. Over the next hour of wonders, I can’t keep track of the eight different musical groups that are named in the program. None of the titles are given, and no specific dance sequences are assigned to any of them. I recognized some of the sources as hymn tunes with their words attenuated almost beyond recognition. Maybe Wilson wanted the audience to associate the voluminous skirts and head cloths with certain ecstatic dances and today’s black dancewear with other kinds of dances, but mainly I was swept away by the force of the rhythms and the fervent dancing, and not worrying about who the characters were.
For all the seeming casualness of Wilson’s initial entrance, the dance that follows isn’t at all random. The 10 dancers usually work in units of male and female, following the strict gender divide of the celibate Shakers. Sometimes the group patterns have men and women forming one framework: square dances, quadrilles, where they work with partners but never touch. Lineups thread through each other and wind around. In another section, the women dance in a circle around a smaller men’s circle going in the other direction. There’s a dance for four men where they share a single movement phrase but face in different directions across a common square. Solo dancers develop their own extensions of the whirling, stomping moves. Duets begin with partners in unison but diverge into individual trances.
In between the numbers, the dancers walk off casually, find their next costumes and change in the wings, in plain sight of the audience. Or they may bring new garments to others waiting in the dancing space for them to carefully slip triangles over heads to make shoulder kerchiefs, or hold up a long fitted coat so the wearer can slip his or her arms into the sleeves. The community, in straw hats, overalls, bonnets, headbands, can suggest crowds of farmworkers or saintly sisters spanning two centuries and a placeless geography.
Throughout much of the dance, Rhetta Aleong and Lawrence Harding patrol the edges of the space like guardians, singing and clapping to accompany the dancing. Reggie Wilson, sometimes accompanied by these watchers and sometimes alone, sits on his bench and dances the recorded music. He sings, shakes a rattle, stomps. Often he claps the beat. When others join him, they clap in fast, interlocking counter-rhythms.
After an hour or so, a last quartet does variations on slow walks and shaking motifs and praising stomps. The company lines up for bows. The audience stands, applauding and yelling. Music is playing. Reggie Wilson shows us the moves and the audience dances joyfully.
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 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.