White Bird: Reggie Wilson considers Moses(es)

Although you won't see a burning bush, choreographer Reggie Wilson manages to convey the Moses story in dance and music

When I saw the parenthetical plural attached to the title of the dance on Reggie Wilson’s first program in Portland, “Moses(es),” I was pretty excited. A dance that features multiple interpretations of the mythic Moses sounded right up this former Baptist’s alley. And when I read that Wilson had drawn on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Moses, Man on the Mountain,” for his dance, my excitement seemed justified. Hurston’s Moses is a sort of shaman, medicine man or voodoo master: “He knows the ways and meaning of Light and he heard the voice of Darkness and knew its thoughts.” Take me to that river!

A moment in Reggie Wilson's "Moses(es)"/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

A moment in Reggie Wilson’s “Moses(es)”/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

But though Hurston’s version of Moses appears in “Moses(es)” in the person of Wilson himself, Wilson doesn’t choreograph narrative dances. So, no burning bush or parting of the Red Sea, no delivery of the Ten Commandments or turning a rod into a serpent (serpent cults abounded in the Middle East), at least not that I could tell from watching.
Multiple Moses(es) do show up, but they were in the songs, the spirituals, that figure prominently in the soundscape, especially “Go Down Moses.”

“Go down Moses,
way down in Egypt Land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.”

This is God talking to Moses, and when the right baritone lays into that spiritual, it does indeed sound like the voice of God, if not like James Earl Jones. And honestly, “Let my people go” never fails to send a shiver down my spine.
The spirituals tell the familiar Moses story, and the sonic context is provided by African musicians, such as the Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble, or Middle Eastern groups, such as Mazaher from Egypt, among the last practitioners of Zar, a healing drum ritual. And maybe the historical context for Moses, insofar as you believe he was an historical character, not a myth.

Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group dances to this music, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, maybe you can catch glimpses of Israelites laboring in slavery in Egypt in their dancing. I thought I could, but I’m pretty suggestible.


This weekend features two dance performances that might offer some solace and solutions in these post-election times: The last bell rings for you by Portland choreographer Linda Austin and Moses(es) by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, presented by White Bird.

Also, happening next Tuesday night is the opening of Suspended Movement: Activating the Nuclear Past + Present by Yukio Kawano with an accompanying performance by butoh choreographer Meshi Chavez, composer Lisa DeGrace and poet Allison Cobb.

Kawano’s work is of two hanging, life-size replicas of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, made from her grandmother’s kimono, stitched together with strands of her own hair.

The last bell rings for you is a collaborative, large ensemble score (a structured framework for improvisation) created by Austin, that features movement artists Claire Barrera, Jin Camou, Nancy Ellis, Jen Hackworth, Allie Hankins, Keyon Gaskin, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles and Takahiro Yamamoto, as well as a diverse group of 18 community participants who learned the material in a series of rehearsals just two weeks ago.

The performers will be discovering pleasure in such group behaviors as singing, walking, bell-ringing, and dancing.

The last bell rings for you is the second part in a three-part series that began with (Un)Made, a solo relay series, that began in March 2015 with a solo created and performed by Linda Austin, who then passed it down, like a game of telephone in relay fashion, to eight other performers: Jin Camou, Keyon Gaskin, Matthew Shyka, Linda K. Johnson, Nancy Ellis, Robert Tyree, Tahni Holt and Jen Hackworth. These performers then in turn passed it down to a group called the Dream Team—Claire Barrera, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Takahiro Yamamoto— before it was finally performed again by Linda Austin herself.

We the audience tracked the details from Austin’s original performance through to each one of the performers, observing what was lost, what remained and what was changed. The entire process was chronicled on the (Un)Made website and includes performance and rehearsal photos as well as writing by Linda Austin and Allie Hankins, who acted as the dramaturg for the project.

I interviewed Austin in 2015 in celebration of Performance Works NW anniversary. To learn more about Austin and Performance Works NW, you can read that interview here.

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, is a Brooklyn-based performance group founded in 1989 that draws on the traditions of the African diaspora, combining that movement with post-modern dance to make what Wilson himself calls “post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dances.”

The company will perform Moses(es), a work that examines the many representations of Moses in religious texts asking: how do we lead and why do we follow? Inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, Wilson traveled to Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Mali to consider the migration of African people throughout the world. The results of his research was Moses(es), an evening-length work for nine performers set to live vocalizations from the African diaspora and recorded music by Louis Armstrong, The Klezmatics, Amahlokohlo, Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble, Mazaher, Aly Us, The Growling Tiger, Bi Kidude, Southern Sons and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Reggie Wilson along with White Bird co-founders Walter Jaffe and Paul King, spoke with Dmae Roberts at KBOO radio about the origin of the company name, the company and the work. You can listen to that full interview here.

Reggie Wilson will be leading a public conversation from 1-2:30 pm on November 19th at PCC Cascade Campus, Moriarty Arts & Humanities Building,
705 NE Killingsworth St.


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