White Bird: Reggie Wilson considers Moses(es)

Although you won't see a burning bush, choreographer Reggie Wilson manages to convey the Moses story in dance and music

When I saw the parenthetical plural attached to the title of the dance on Reggie Wilson’s first program in Portland, “Moses(es),” I was pretty excited. A dance that features multiple interpretations of the mythic Moses sounded right up this former Baptist’s alley. And when I read that Wilson had drawn on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Moses, Man on the Mountain,” for his dance, my excitement seemed justified. Hurston’s Moses is a sort of shaman, medicine man or voodoo master: “He knows the ways and meaning of Light and he heard the voice of Darkness and knew its thoughts.” Take me to that river!

A moment in Reggie Wilson's "Moses(es)"/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

A moment in Reggie Wilson’s “Moses(es)”/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

But though Hurston’s version of Moses appears in “Moses(es)” in the person of Wilson himself, Wilson doesn’t choreograph narrative dances. So, no burning bush or parting of the Red Sea, no delivery of the Ten Commandments or turning a rod into a serpent (serpent cults abounded in the Middle East), at least not that I could tell from watching.
Multiple Moses(es) do show up, but they were in the songs, the spirituals, that figure prominently in the soundscape, especially “Go Down Moses.”

“Go down Moses,
way down in Egypt Land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.”

This is God talking to Moses, and when the right baritone lays into that spiritual, it does indeed sound like the voice of God, if not like James Earl Jones. And honestly, “Let my people go” never fails to send a shiver down my spine.
The spirituals tell the familiar Moses story, and the sonic context is provided by African musicians, such as the Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble, or Middle Eastern groups, such as Mazaher from Egypt, among the last practitioners of Zar, a healing drum ritual. And maybe the historical context for Moses, insofar as you believe he was an historical character, not a myth.

Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group dances to this music, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, maybe you can catch glimpses of Israelites laboring in slavery in Egypt in their dancing. I thought I could, but I’m pretty suggestible.

As dance, “Moses(es)” feels pretty relaxed and informal, a style that I happen to like. The patterns can be complex, the individual dancers are strong and adept, a little comedy even slips in, as the dancers try to one-up each other in a round of solos. Structure’s there and specific choreography, and things can get very energetic, even intense at times, but the mood is casual for the most part, as each change in the music directs the dancers toward new movement phrases—that don’t ever dispense with all of the old ones. The movement combines African and African-American forms with formal Western styles (high modern dance and ballet) without making the dance into an expression of virtuosity: Here they simply seem to work together, even a little vogueing section.

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group performed "Moses(es)" for White Bird

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group performed “Moses(es)” for White Bird

Wilson himself plays multiple roles onstage. He stuffs strands of tinsel, which reflects the red light above, into a suitcase at the start of the dance (a reference to the African diaspora, as other critics have suggested); he sings along and provides percussion for the dancers; he plays shaman at times. Mostly, he injects energy into “Moses(es)” and keeps it hanging together.

I understand why Alastair Macaulay of the New York Times complained that dance “never took wing.” If you like your dance tight, expressive and full of physical flourishes, “Moses(es)” might not make you happy. On the other hand, another Times critic, Brian Seibert, called it “a thrilling work”: “While Mr. Wilson’s abstraction strips the spirituals of sentimentality and the crust of overfamiliarity, the music invests the abstractions with emotion, floating the dance through parts that feel like wandering the desert. “Moses(es)” isn’t always easy to follow, but you can trust Mr. Wilson and the music to lead you through.”

Wilson formed his company in 1989, and this is his first visit to Portland, though White Bird’s Walter Jaffe and Paul King have wanted to program him for a long time. Their American Dance Platform series at the Joyce Theater in New York in January included Wilson. I’d love the chance to see more of Wilson in Portland: I think his work is the kind that deepens over time, with multiple exposures of different dances. I’m hoping “Moses(es) is just the beginning.

White Bird’s presentation of Reggie Wilson’s “Moses(es)” continues at 8 pm through Saturday, November 19, at Lincoln Hall, Portland State University.

Special Event

Ring Shout: A Moving Conversation with Reggie Wilson
1-2:30 pm Saturday, November 19,at PCC, Cascade Campus, Moriarty Arts & Humanities Building (705 NE Killingsworth St.)
Free; to reserve a spot e-mail: groovyrenee@gmail.com

Comments are closed.