For choreographer Reggie Wilson, who has dedicated decades to researching and illuminating the spiritual and cultural traditions of the African diaspora, Shakers would seem an unusual source of obsession. But when his investigations led to the discovery of a community of Black Shakers in the middle 1800s, he was all in. He’d always felt there was nothing “any whiter than a New England Shaker,” he admits with a chuckle. “Finding such a thing as a Black Shaker didn’t fit easily into my model of reality. I wanted to understand ... how that existed and what that might have looked like.” That curiosity led Wilson to create his latest full-evening dance work, “POWER,” which he and his 31-year-old company Fist and Heel Performance Group present at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston this weekend.
Commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and premiered there last summer, the hourlong “POWER” envisions with a contemporary eye the spiritual practices of a free community of Black Shakers. Often called “Shaking Quakers” in the 18th century because of the physicality of their worship, Shakers complemented their devotional expression not just with songs and dances, but often with twirling, twitching, and quivering in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. “POWER” isn’t a reenactment, but rather a kind of enlargement of what might have been, combining and filtering movement influences and practices through a Black sensibility and a distinctly postmodern lens.
“Wilson combines Shaker-inspired dance with unexpected music and brilliantly colored costumes to poetically reimagine and expand our understanding of Shakers,” says John Andress, the ICA’s Bill T. Jones Director/Curator of Performing Arts.
Wilson has called himself a “kinesthetic anthropologist,” looking for connections and parallels between religious movement expression in different cultures and the postmodern movement aesthetic of his dance background. Born in Milwaukee, where he attended a Black church and witnessed his own share of charismatic worship, Wilson moved to New York in the ’80s and discovered a lively experimental dance scene. He graduated from New York University and toured as a dancer with legendary choreographer Ohad Naharin before founding his own troupe.
The company’s name refers to “fist and heel worshiping,” a description of the spiritual traditions cleverly reinvented by enslaved Africans in the Americas when they were forbidden the boisterous practices of their native lands. That spirit of reinvention has fueled most of Wilson’s works over the past three decades. “POWER” was partly inspired by the story of Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free Black woman who in the 19th century became a Shaker eldress and founded a Shaker community in Philadelphia of mostly urban Black women.
“My previous research was pulling from Africanist shout traditions in the US and Caribbean and Africa, and using that as a model for comparing and contrasting,” Wilson says. “The research I’ve done in the past wasn’t just thinking about those Black religious practices, but about how they were different from white or European versions of those same faiths. So, if there was this Black Shaker community, what could their worship have looked like? I’m not trying to present what they did, but [rather] some of the different possibilities of the elements that would have made up their movements …thinking about the rhythmical aspects, the repetition, the geometry, not just circle dances.”
For Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which not only commissioned but supported development of the piece through two residencies at its creative incubator Pillow Lab, the work offered an opportunity to partner with Hancock Shaker Village. Established in 1783, the Berkshires village still embodies the religious values of the Shakers as a kind of living museum. Wilson and his company spent time at the village absorbing the place’s spirit and energy, not to mention its rich history. “Reggie is really a dance anthropologist [and] ethnographer of the highest caliber,” says Pillow executive director Pamela Tatge. “This project had such power in terms of thinking about the history of African-Americans and spiritual traditions and how that would relate to Shaker movement and song. I could really see the promise.”
And she says that promise has been fulfilled, with a multigenerational, multinational cast forming an expressive collective that builds momentum through singing as well as dancing. "It engages the audience in the power of community — what can happen when we work together, the kind of transcendence we can feel,” Tatge says. "Reggie does this in a hugely intentional way. He is the griot of the work, his singing and body percussion are a thread throughout.” A recorded score, ranging from house music to field recordings, underpins the live vocals of the 11 performers, creating what Wilson calls “a multilayered soundscape.”
Wilson says each of his performers, who brought a wide range of cultural practices into the dance-making process, have found “POWER” meaningful to them in different ways. “The multiplicity of it is really wonderful,” he says. “We’re a diverse company — the way we look, where we come from, our movement practices. But once we started doing the Shaker dances, even people who hate any kind of religion, all really enjoyed communal moving together. This is gonna sound corny, but it was so simple. I think that’s what viewers get, too.”
Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group.
At Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, Feb. 21-22.
Tickets $15-$25. 617-478-3103, www.icaboston.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.