In Moses(es) last night at White Bird Dance in Portland, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group took the audience on a journey across time and space, exploring the intricacies and indelible spirit of culture and people, through movement and song.
“Why do we lead? How do we lead?” asked Wilson in the post-show talkback. “ And why do we follow?”
I have to admit, weary from the post-election sobriety and facing an uncertain future, I was ready to live for the next four years in the lobby of PSU’s Lincoln Hall, as the cheerful dance audience assembled there represented the joyful diversity that I think the world should embrace.
I’ve followed reviews, and seen snippets of this work on video, but what a glorious opportunity to see it in real life. And timely.
There was something prescient and cathartic in the telling, something crystal clear. Through his work, with a big heart, keen intelligence and pitch-perfect study, Wilson offers solace, sojourn, and a way forward:
Exploring the African diaspora and the human global diaspora, Moses(es) interweaves popular religious iconography and storytelling, about Moses himself, with a bedrock narrative about the African American experience.
The stage opens with the curtain pulled back, seeing the skeleton of the theater for what it is. Project into that rigging a timelessness, a place that isn’t presentational or artistic, but raw, and everywhere. The hollow scaffolds and dangling ropes, the bins and boxes: This could be a ship, a plantation, a city or a citadel.
Crumpled Mylar tinsel is strewn about the stage in wild ellipses, and Wilson himself stuffs it into a big, red suitcase, as dancers move to their places.
At one moment, dancers create a low level shape, nestled downstage, their heads facing the audience, they’re packed together in a crowded, comforting tangle that seems regimented and prescribed. My mind leaps to the etchings I’ve seen of the slave ships, with human beings commoditized for expedient shipping, like cargo.
Later, dancers move with a hieroglyphic precision, delving into the shapes and stasis of stained glass, or reliefs. They seem like superheroes, bigger than life, projecting outwards an image of transparency and hope.
Wilson transforms dishtowels – dishtowels – into a riveting depiction of slavery itself, repeating the patterns and rhythm of the folding, brushing, snapping of endless labor.
A large cloth cracks like a whip.
At another moment, the dancers move in downstage diagonals, creating a parted line for one dancer to leap through, briskly, in a moment of faith.
In Wilson’s choreography, we see a tremendous development of language and reason, but there’s ease to the telling of this story, too. His facility draws on a deep methodology into modern dance, but his effervescent structure lends a tip of the hat to the postmodernists.
One of the most stirring moments finds a reimagining of “Wading in the Water” – made famous by Alvin Ailey’s ‘Revelations’ – but within its slow, aching tempo, Wilson explores violence, and accountability.
Wilson is never overt or ham-fisted. And his company, stellar performers all, bring a lush and exquisite range to the effort, compounding every alchemic reaction with their own humanity.
The piece builds, warmly, with invitation to project into it our own thoughts and dreams.
Wilson says he was inspired by mathematical fractals, “The way something looks at a small scale is the same as at the larger scale,” he says.
It’s a perfect metaphor for the cutting up of culture, the scattering of home and peoples, all over the world.
In the post-show conversation, Wilson takes us to a salient moment in the Moses myth:
“Moses parted the seas, and his followers found themselves walking through the sand, with walls of water on either side.”
What must that have felt like?
Maybe we’re all still finding out.