Thursday, December 5, 2013

Following Moses(es): Reggie Wilson at BAM

This morning, I continue to mull over why I felt, and still feel, somewhat cool towards Moses(es), a new work presented by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group for Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. I love it in pieces--and those pieces, I love to pieces. But...I still don't know....

Taking its premise from the biblical story of Moses, notions of leadership/followership and worldwide traditions of migration, Moses(es)--the plurality is important to Wilson, not just clever--incorporates building blocks and methods this dancemaker has employed before. Dry wit, personally researched and beloved vocal music of the African diaspora, choreography sourced in and flavored by cultural traditions but smartly abstracted and meticulously arranged in movements clean as a hound's tooth. His collaboration with lighting designer Jonathan Belcher locates his work in a place of theatrical glamour--never more so than in Moses(es)--and delight, as if spinning popular and folkloric culture into fine gold thread and opulent fabric for optimum display.

And there are Wilson's fellow dancers, a few whom have been along for his journey for more than two decades and turn their steadfast strengths to this piece; out of them all, none quite as eye-catching and heart-stopping in this particular work as the compact and scissory-sharp Anna Schön, a petite Orthodox Jew in a company mostly made up of tall Black men of American, Caribbean and African origins. Dressed in Naoko Nagata's red-themed costumes, Wilson's dancers pop from their empty environment on the Harvey Theater stage, creating pockets of movement and vitality. When I think of those pockets of vitality, though, I recall thinking that they looked like isolated lights clicking on in a stretch of darkness.

Watching Moses(es), I'm just realizing now, turned me into a follower, trailing behind, stumbling behind Wilson and the company as they--literally and figuratively--populated various locations onstage, offered and embodied various cultural reference points, moved to and sometimes sang various genres of music (spirituals, klezmer, house, what have you). At times, dancers would park themselves in a corner--lying on the floor or looking into the wings or just standing around--as action would break out in another location. Set against the rawness of the Harvey's stage which, for some reason, felt farther away from me than it usually does, Wilson's abstract choreography made the air seem completely still around not only any moving group but around each individual mover. The stage picture looked static and chilled, particularly any time that regulated or repeated or ritualistic action was involved or the ensemble evenly distributed its members in the manner of the white polka-dots that decorated some costumes.

Singing and chanting--some live, some on recording--and rhythmic clapping and stamping accompany much of the dancing. Some vocals emerge, subtly, from the dancers, or from Wilson and one or another performer almost entirely tucked out of sight in a corner of the space. Our ears are pulled to follow all of that, too.

I'd catch a glimpse of the very end of Wilson's tapping foot, and I'd want to go down there, round any obstruction, to be able to simply watch him. That strong sense of distance and separation and longing--maybe intentional--formed such a large part of my experience of this piece that, at the end, I felt I never got a chance to wrap my arms around it as a whole.

Did I say how it all starts? Wilson, dressed in a white jumpsuit, comes out on stage and just stands gazing out at us for a while longer than seems normal and comfortable. Then suddenly, and dryly, he identifies the troupe: "Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group." Then the other performers come out, one by one, telling us their names, their places of origin and how long they've been with the company, all of which charms the audience no end. Then they retreat to a corner, turning their backs on us and gazing at something we'll never see, as Louis Armstrong swings "Go Down, Moses." Instead, we watch Wilson, in the middle of the stage, working hard to stuff a large piece of red, soft-sided luggage with what looks like half-a-stage's worth of Mylar tinsel. He pushes and prods and pushes and prods the billowing tinsel. Will he eventually get it all in? What do you think? Now that was one sequence I felt my arms wrap around.

I think back on the silver glitter of that mound of tinsel and the nearly unreasonable dazzle of Belcher's lighting throughout, especially in the house music sequence. Impractical and fabulous, all of it, stuffed in a totally mundane piece of luggage, the way fabulosity can inhabit and animate our mundane physical selves. And necessary for all of its fabulous impracticality. It's a must. Wilson has spent most of his life in art--unreasonably impractical, that--and traveling, traveling, traveling to feed that art with all the unreasonably fabulous gifts of the turning world.

Moses(es) continues through Saturday evening with performances at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

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