Reggie Wilson explores the power of moving together
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Reggie Wilson explores the power of moving together
The choreographer Reggie Wilson in New York, Feb. 16, 2018. The choreographer continues his research into African American worship and the Black Shakers in “Power” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Andrew White/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Even choreographer Reggie Wilson sees how many would think that his new piece, “Power,” is just another version of “ … they stood shaking while others began to shout,” which premiered in 2019.

“How many people have made pieces inspired by Mother Rebecca’s Black Shaker community?” he said, dissolving into a characteristic fit of laughter. But while the two works “have some similar movements,” he added, “they’re really not the same piece at all.”

When Wilson became aware of Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson, a Shaker eldress who formed her own community in Philadelphia in the 19th century, he was immediately intrigued about how Black and Shaker traditions intertwined — or didn’t. Shaker worship incorporated dance. Both of Wilson’s works are based on an imaginative speculation: What might Jackson's worship have looked like?

And the look matters, at least in “Power,” which is to have its New York premiere at the Harvey Theater at BAM Strong, Thursday through Saturday, COVID-19 permitting. (A community performance in conjunction with the Academy’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. is scheduled for Monday.)

For “Power,” Wilson engaged two costume designers as collaborators: Naoko Nagata, with whom he has a long history; and Enver Chakartash, who designed the vivid, patterned costumes for his “Citizen” (2016). He wanted both of their voices. “As this project started, I was just like, well, here’s a crazy thought, Mr. Wilson: Why don’t you have two costume designers?” he said. “Who gets to do that?”

He added, “I think it is the first time that I’ve thought about the costume design as the major collaboration.”

Chakartash and Nagata were involved from the start, working separately with Wilson and the dancers at Hancock Shaker Village, a museum and farm in the Berkshires. (“Power” was also developed at Jacob’s Pillow, the dance institution nearby, where it received its world premiere.)

“Half of the time was with Enver there, and the other was with Naoko,” Wilson said. “I asked them not to speak about what they experienced until both had come back. I figured, why just have them start off doing the same thing right away?”

“Power” opens with Wilson singing and moving, almost tenderly, pieces of fabric, which become the designs for the opening trio — billowy, diaphanous skirts that later expand into dresses and overalls as costume changes happen onstage or in the wings. Throughout, sleek dancewear is also on display. For Wilson, the costumes create a world — or, specifically, three landscapes — that brings his vision of the Shakers to life.

“It had to do with us not wanting it to settle into one place or time,” Wilson said. “It keeps mutating, and it goes from more dance-y and athletic to kind of more historical character to more design.”

While the designers studied Shaker materials — shoes, fabric, lace and needlework — at Hancock, Wilson and the dancers learned reconstructed Shaker dances from a video by the Enfield Shaker Singers, directed by Mary Ann Haagen. “It’s just like, let me start seeing what this actual movement feels like on the body,” Wilson said. “Because looking at it is one thing; trying to do it is another thing.”

For “Power,” the idea is to capture different iterations of a question that Wilson is pondering: What if the Shakers of Jackson's community learned a dance from one of the New England communities and then took it back to theirs? How would it change and morph? And this all unfolds within Wilson’s lens of postmodern dance.

Recently, Wilson spoke about this new piece and how his company, Fist and Heel Performance Group, has reacted to dancing communally — it’s emotional — and the power it helps to create, both internally and externally. Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation.

Q: Why does Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson’s community interest you so much?

A: Most Shaker communities are rural. [Jackson’s] was urban and primarily women. And primarily Black, with a few Jewish women and a couple of men. So it’s like, what did it look like?

So much of the research that I’ve done is thinking about Black worship traditions and shout traditions. I was like, OK, so here was a woman itinerant preacher with the possibilities of this folk spirituality, right? So maybe they did this? Basically, “Power” is multiple versions of “it could have looked like this, or it could looked like that.”

Q: You have talked about the power of the dances and how power manifests as energy. Can you elaborate as to how that relates to the piece?

A: When I was first starting and I landed on the title “Power,” it seemed like such a different model of power — not patriarchal power, but a kind of feminine or matriarchal power from within. This also matches my interpretation of a lot of Africanist practices, where, during initiations, you are on your own individual search. Like you are receiving your gift from God, you are receiving what your role in the community is supposed to be. And the way you enter into spirit and trance is going to be slightly different than the person next to you.

Q: It’s individual?

A: It’s this individual power in relationship to the communal. Not just the community, but the communal.

Q: What is the difference?

A: How do you bring yourself in relationship to others? By being fully yourself. And it’s not about minimizing or squishing yourself, but about tailoring or customizing it to be able to exist next to another.

Q: There’s so much dancing in this piece, and I think it’s going to feel so good to see it in person. I know that’s not the only point, but —

A: It is!

Q: Is it like this piece is an energy?

A: It’s power. The piece is about power, and it’s the type of power that is internal and external at the same time.

When I was doing a lot of research with the Spiritual Baptists from Trinidad and Tobago, they say “higher heights and deeper depths.” So you’re always working in two directions at the same time. The Shakers also had a saying: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” To me, it’s so postmodern, too!

Q: How?

A: It’s just like [postmodern choreographers] David Gordon or Trisha Brown. Each step has its own power, its own trajectory. It has its own … there goes the word! It has its own power. And how do you give the agency and the care to each step?

It’s like the mundane. What they did at Judson [Dance Theater, the 1960s experimental collective] was putting the mundane back on the table.

Q: And this is putting simplicity back on the table?

A: It’s putting simplicity, it’s putting everyday-ness, it’s putting labor, it’s putting work. The labor of a step, the labor of whether it’s an arabesque or a Caribbean step or a folk Irish step. It’s all powerful, and it’s all valuable.

Q: It’s all equal?

A: Yes. It’s all equally valid and it’s all equally powerful. Can I put the ballet next to the Fosse? Where’s the Fosse? Now you’re going to look for the Fosse. [Laughs]

Q: Is there really a Fosse moment?

A: I’m sure there is. There’s always a Cunningham, a Balanchine, a Fosse. There’s probably one or two Sabar steps from Senegal. There’s probably some steps from Zimbabwe.

So we learned the patterns and the steps of these reconstructed Shaker dances. That’s the core material. Now, if we want to Africanize it and “Reggie-fy” it, what do we do? It’s just taking this original thing and then playing with it.

Q: What does simplicity mean to you in regard to the piece?

A: In thinking about how complex you can get with a simple kind of repetitiveness. When we started learning the reconstructed Shaker dances, we started seeing the patterns that were coming up and how it felt and impacted the religious and the nonreligious members of Fist and Heel. That was interesting. Seeing it actually manifested on bodies weaving back and forth and how those patterns played out and also seeing the emotional impact it was having on some of the dancers.

Q: In what way?

A: There was one dancer who cried. I was like, "Oh, my God, we’re never going to get through this." [Laughs] And it’s somebody in the company that is a complete atheist — and not agnostic, but atheist. And I was just like, “Well, you apparently are having some conversation with Mother Ann.” Mother Ann [Lee] was the founder of the Shakers.

Q: Has it affected you emotionally?

A: [Pauses] As much as any of my pieces do, so yeah. I do joke that we’ve all become Shakers, but nobody is trying to actually go the whole nine yards and move up to Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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