BECKET — What a strange relationship Shakers have with the body. Officially called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, they’re known more familiarly by a moniker that refers to their dancing, presumably a kind of spiritual ecstasy. Physical ecstasy of the more familiar kind — sex — is verboten for the celibacy-sworn sect.
It’s the dancing that has called choreographers to create works about the Shakers, as well as the religion’s belief in the importance of the larger, metaphoric body of the community. At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group is premiering Wilson’s “POWER,” the latest in the Shaker-inspired canon that includes American modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey’s 1931 “The Shakers” and Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen’s 2004 “Borrowed Light.”
Wilson’s variation on the theme is fueled by his discovery that there were black Shakers once upon a time; “POWER” is the choreographer’s abstract exploration of what African-American Shaker practice could look like.
And this is abstraction in the extreme: no story line, no overt commentary on the Believers’ ideals or practices. Or perhaps the very unbuttoned, loose-limbed movement of Wilson’s dancers — those limbs often uncovered, the barefoot dancers’ sweat-sheened skin glistening and strong — is a kind of rebuttal to the depictions of dancing Shakers dressed nearly head-to-toe in conservative clothing. The score of “POWER,” a compilation that includes traditional-sounding spirituals as well as more contemporary tracks, is also groovy, a world apart from the placidly earnest ditties we often hear in reenactments of Shaker life.
Thus, “POWER” is almost only about the dance, though the concept of communitarianism is a strong thread, as is ritualism, particularly the ritual of repetition.
This community, mostly of black and brown-skinned people, is multi-generational, with Wilson and longtime company members Rhetta Aleong and Lawrence Harding presiding like wise elders. Sometimes Aleong and Harding sit far downstage right with Wilson, singing and clapping with him, but they often traverse the perimeter of the stage, as if consecrating the space.
They and the rest of the cast — Hadar Ahuvia, Yeman Brown, Paul Hamilton, Michel Kouakou, Clement Mensah, Gabriela Silva, Annie Wang, and Michelle Yard — are at once emotionally enigmatic and physically forthright, private souls sharing their prowess. The piece begins with Wilson walking a diagonal path several times as he moves large pieces of fabric from one corner to another, at first humming raspily, then building into an earthy, full-throated version of the famous Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.”
This first ritual concludes with Wilson ushering in his dancer/disciples. Three women wrap that fabric around their waists, then perform the bones of the main dance phrase that we’ll see repeatedly throughout the hourlong dance. They extend a leg out to the front at 90 degrees, then hop, or flick a leg out to the side, or balance with one leg wrapped around in a back attitude before teetering down and into a soft backward somersault. It’s all faintly mesmerizing. A simple gift indeed, this spare masterstroke of a beginning.
The space too is spare, the wings open and lit so we see the dancers’ comings and goings, their frequent costume changes that are a prominent ritual throughout. (The costumes were designed by Naoko Nagata and Enver Charkatash.) This openness, and Jonathan Belcher’s warm, bright lighting, suggests an airy sanctuary.
Repetition and ritual are two sides of a coin. “POWER” — a theatricalization, rather than a reenactment, of ritual — is somewhat weakened by the amount of repetition. Theme is necessary to make a dance cohere, but variation keeps our eyes keenly open. Though the work does have a faint “in-process” feel to it, the parts of this dance, and the dancers themselves, are powerful indeed.
REGGIE WILSON/FIST AND HEEL PERFORMANCE GROUP
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $20-$45. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.