by Jenny Hansell
Pity the reviewer who finds herself penless, a challenge made even more so when reviewing dance, that most ephemeral and non-verbal art. At Jacob’s Pillow this past weekend, with a nonfunctioning implement and unable to scribble specific descriptions of moments and movements, I was forced to simply immerse myself in the experience, allowing the most memorable moments to stand in for the rest.
And, I might add, all for the best, as the immersive experience of Reggie Wilson’s Power, which had its world premier this past weekend at Jacob’s Pillow, was memorable indeed.
This evening-length piece has deep Berkshire roots, as Wilson developed it in part through residencies at Hancock Shaker Village as well as the Pillow Lab. African Americans were welcome in the Shaker tradition going back to the 1700s, and Wilson here imagines what Black Shaker worship might have been like. The result is part meditation, part joyous celebration.
The Shakers embraced dance, but the piece starts with a walk: Wilson moves diagonally across the stage in soft dim light, slowly intoning the well-known Shaker hymn, Tis a Gift To Be Simple. He gently carries some items of printed clothing from one end of the stage to the other. Throughout the piece, these garments and others will be hung in the wings, and the dancers will put them on and take them off, repeatedly cycling between modern rehearsal garb and costumes that evoke clothing for field work, church or celebration. Each item is beautiful and as a group even more so: indigo printed skirts and bibs, soft white overalls, many pieces with with touches of bright scarlet.)
The score consists of about a dozen pieces of music, supplemented with chanting and singing by the performers themselves. Wilson is known for his post-modern layering of rhythms, sounds and movements from different traditions and eras, always exploring the African diaspora and the way African cultures have blended and evolved in the Americas. There is no record of the specific ways African-Americans participated in Shaker worship and dance, so Wilson creates a language that is both plain and heartfelt.
The mood is often contemplative, the movement vocabulary seemingly simple: an arm reaching to the sky, a series of hops, a low kick, feet softly pointed. Group sections often start with the dancers launching backward onto the stage, joining each other in unison movement. There are no fancy leaps or high leg extensions – virtuosic technique would be beside the point here. The excellent dancers were a diverse bunch in age and body type – long-time dance veterans and non-dancers mixed in with the more typically athletic.
It may be a gift to be simple, but there was deep complexity underlying the simplicity here – I hope to have the chance for a repeat viewing or two to fully appreciate the layers of music, movement and history. And I’ll leave my pen at home.
Reggie Wilson Fist and Heel Performance Group, presented by Jacob’s Pillow in the Doris Duke Theatre, July 10-14 2019
Performers: Reggie Wilson, Hadar Ahuvia, Rhetta Aleong, Yeman Brown, Paul Hamilton, Lawrence Harding, Michel Kouakou, Clement Mensah, Gabriela Silva, Annie Wang, Michelle Yard
Choreography by Reggie Wilson; Costume Design: Naoko Nagata, Enver Charkatash, Indigo Batik by Arianne King Comer with Adjua Nsoroma, and Fist and Heel. Technical Direction/Lighting Design: Jonathan Belcher.