Dance review: Reggie Wilson’s got the POWER

White Bird brought Reggie Wilson to town and he brought a lesson about black Shakers

The world premiere of POWER in July of 2019 was an evening-length work, yet Reggie Wilson was generous enough with his energy to give a post-show interview after the second performance. When asked how he envisioned the world that the piece so fully occupies, he replied, “I tend not to envision—or project.” Instead, he said, he works with “found stuff” and with his many like-minded collaborators. He feeds their shared curiosity with deep research.

Dancers in Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Dance Troupe
Dancers in Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Dance Troupe perform a duet to Solon Bushi by the Staples Singers. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Wilson developed POWER in part during a residency at the Berkshire-based Hancock Shaker Village. He had been led there by his research into the history and experience of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a black woman who became a prominent figure in Shaker history. “I had heard about black Quakers because of their involvement with the Underground Railroad and abolition, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be black Shakers,” Wilson said, voicing a realization shared by many in the audience on Thursday night at the Portland premiere of POWER.

At Hancock, Wilson discovered how much more there was to the Shaker tradition than “just furniture and celibacy.” Dance and movement held a special place in Shaker religion and society as a direct way to liberate the soul and invite temporary possession by spirits.

Wilson knew that Rebecca Jackson, also known as Mother Rebecca, had her own singing and prayer group whose members were mainly black women. In his talk after the premiere, Wilson mused, “wouldn’t they carry over some of that … physicality and practice that they already had in their African, Afro-baptist, Afro-methodist kind of worship? If Shakers are moving, and moving into Spirit, and Africanist traditions are shaking and moving into spirit…so…Yeah!” At that point he spread his hands and gave the audience a look.

The dance takes that feeling and runs with it. Wilson sees the deep-running conduits connecting seemingly different cultures through the universal experience of groups of people coming together to dance, worship, and build a community. And of course, collaborating with math advisor Jesse Wolfeson to incorporate African fractal geometry into the work makes sense. Indigo batik-printed fabric, in the hands of Japanese biochemist-turned-costume-designer Naoko Nagata does in fact blend well with traditional Shaker dress. In fact, it all comes together so solidly on stage, one has to wonder why more avowedly-postmodern dance companies haven’t paid attention to this kind of collective, untrained group folk dance that has supported communities in nearly every country throughout history.

In the kaleidoscope of inspiration and references in the show, two items — a fabric and a song —  exemplify the intersection of traditions, crafts, identities, and materials that comprise POWER

The show opens with Wilson intoning a Shaker hymn and cradling a bolt of cloth dyed indigo with batik patterning. The fabric originally came from a collaboration, Call and Response, with textile artist Arianne King Comer, and is still stiff with wax from the batik process. Wilson first brought it back to the company simply because they needed more material for the beautiful, historically-inspired costuming that takes such a prominent role in POWER. However, a closer look revealed complexities in the fabric that mirror those explored in the show.

Originally from Asia and deeply rooted in the textile traditions of that region, indigo became a cash crop in the Southern Colonies, up there with tobacco and cotton. The Batik patterns call to mind vibrant African patterned fabric, but that history is complicated too. When Dutch colonists imported Asian batik techniques and patterns to their African colonies, they crowded existing resistance-dye traditions out of the market, casting a shadow of cultural influence that still lingers today. And in the hands of Nagata and her fellow costume designer Enver Chakartash, they became a gorgeous complement to the old-fashioned lines of demure Shaker dress. Full skirts with multiple layers of flounces and swags, mini-capes called “berthas”, head wraps, and overalls alike sported patterned indigo in the place of the famous Shaker Blue, and it worked.

Costume designer Nagota found herself at the intersection of another formal choice that, while not obviously related to the historical material in question, makes perfect sense in the world conjured in the show. A beautiful duet between two of the male dancers is performed to the Staple Singer’s 1970 version of Solon Bushi, a traditional Japanese sea shanty. Wilson remembers that version, while Nagota remembers it as a ubiquitous folk song. Wilson first played the Staples version during a rehearsal almost as a prank on Nagota. Unsure if it was “really Japanese,” Wilson figured that if he put it on and it got Nagota’s attention, there might be something to talk about. And, in fact, a Delta gospel group, deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1960s, singing a work song about fishing, with a driving rhythm, made sense. Looking deeper into it, the song and its history fit quite snugly with the Shaker idea of sacred labor, of labor being a way to connect with spirits.

Wilson says it got him “thinking about different workers, across the planet, they just have to keep going, keep going…sometimes they find a meditative way to do it, sometimes it’s survival.” The song became a way for him to get “a bigger reach” to the Shakers’ ideas, beyond the common conception that they are restricted to a “very New England, very white” world. 

Wilson is labeled as a postmodern choreographer, which is true in the technical sense. Among the many popular misconceptions that accompany that term, perhaps the most interruptive is the idea that anyone working under postmodernism is doing so willfully, in an attempt to forge a new school of arbitrary pastiche, like the Impressionists fought for their place on the gallery walls. It is more of a situation now than a movement, and it is important to know how that situation affects what we are looking at. What Wilson is looking for in POWER wouldn’t be better served by an attempt at historical recreation, yet he’s not finding it by being willfully postmodernist. Rather, in the postmodern situation, he is searching, omnivorously and omnidirectionally, for a way to be true to the spirit of a lived history that can’t be explicitly known, and the deep ideas that informed that experience. 

The movement, costuming, and music in the show have far more energy, variety and color when compared to traditional Shaker dance. But the point isn’t to create some sort of of bumped-up Shaker remix, rather to show how all the disparate elements brought together here are rooted in something more shared. By working to create something that holds together so well despite its fusion of diverse traditions and aesthetics, Wilson has revealed those deeper currents. 

The faithfulness to his “reconstruction” is to those deeper inspirations and ambitions of the material, and to what his dancers bring to the show from their many, individual backgrounds. That’s what the show is true to, to the extent that the dancers do not look like professional dancers at times, but like people moving their bodies for an ecstatic, spiritual purpose, supporting a tight-knit community. 

Dancers in Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Dance Troupe
Fist and Heel Performance Group members in custom Shaker-inspired costumes. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Specific, symbolic elements from Shaker dance do appear in the show—shaking out the hands, raising them to hearts and the heavens. Modern dance techniques intersect with the almost trance-like wheeling and repetition of spiritual group dances. At times it is hard to decide whether the foundation comes from the Shakers or from the other areas of Wilson’s broad interest, such as African ring-shout dances.

Perhaps the most striking quality to the movement in POWER was its realism. While the dancers in Fist and Heel clearly have all the skills one would expect of a professional troupe of their caliber, their choreography seemed to intentionally forgo polish in the service of presence. For lack of better words, they just seemed to be dancing the way their bodies wanted to move—like the people who created these dances would move.

As the Shakers’ black members are an overlooked and important part of their history, so is the role of spiritual movement in why we, as an audience, watch dancers. They do something very human—get together, clap, move together in a group. This ritual has served a purpose, which sometimes seems lost in modern society. POWER makes it easier to see that purpose and the humble beauty that drives it.

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