For “Moses(es),” an evening-length work performed by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, Wilson’s inspirations are many, from his travels in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Mali to his interest in the African diaspora and even fractal geometry. Wilson was also inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Moses, Man of the Mountain,” an African-American folkloric take on the Exodus story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt.
“Moses(es)” opens with the performers introducing themselves to the audience, stating where they were born and how long they have been with the company. This sets an informal tone and announces the company’s global presence. In addition to a diverse score (including everything from the Klezmatics to Tiger to African-American spirituals), the dancers also provide much of the instrumentation: They hum, chant, sing, and stomp on the floor.
The dancing accelerates from walking from one corner of the stage to another — a possible reference to diaspora and migration — to jumps, squats, leaps, kicks, and quick shifts in weight and direction. Yet the most successful movements are the small, specific hand gestures, fingers swirling with the turn of a wrist. In those few moments, my attention was rapt.
The performance’s casualness is striking: A few dancers sit on folding chairs in the back, at one point sitting in a circle as if around a campfire. Some of the dancers look directly at the audience as if to search for someone they know, with hands resting on their hips. The choreography also has an informality to it: While some of the dancers merely indicate the gestures, others articulate the movements; it’s a bit of a free for all. As a performer, Wilson toured with Ohad Naharin, artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, and I was surprised that Wilson’s choreography lacked the specificity or subtlety of Naharin’s “Gaga” technique. But like Naharin, Wilson seems interested in an individual sense of exploration.
Wilson acts as a master of ceremonies, as he looks on from the periphery. He’s also a singer, a percussionist, and even a prop master at one point, setting out headscarves for the dancers. He sets himself apart from the group by wearing a white jumpsuit while his dancers are costumed in red. And those dancers almost never break apart from the group, as they execute the same short movement phrases in succession and then in canon. With such layered, weighty cultural material to draw from, I would have hoped for more variation, and more exploration of human interaction and relationships.
Much of the imagery is disappointingly on the nose: Wilson kneels to divide a glittery display of tinsel (the Red Sea) on the floor, then stuffs the tinsel into a large suitcase (suggestive of diaspora). Wilson later walks through the dancers as they fall to the wayside, casting himself as Moses.
While Wilson misses the opportunity to touch on more of the themes of Hurston’s novel, he succeeds in blending African and modern dance traditions in order to create something original. “Moses(es)” feels experimental and entirely new.