How to Commune
Reggie Wilson reimagines a Black Shaker history in POWER at BAM.
Three skirts waited for Reggie Wilson on Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Strong Theater stage, two folded and one starched enough to stand upright on its own. As he walked on, he greeted them like old friends, singing softly while folding the garments delicately. On this chilly Thursday, January 13, 2022, Fist and Heel Performance Group’s New York premiere of Wilson’s POWER was an anomaly. So many shows had just been postponed or simply canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 Omicron surge. To be in this sparse audience was a privilege and a conundrum, one that I heard more than one group of people debate outside the theater, no matter the strict pandemic protocols BAM had in place: was this a good idea given this infectious variant? Should we even be doing this?
Fortunately, POWER answered this anxious question with a confident yes: the choreography a testament to the spiritual nature of communing. Wilson has long been investigating Black worship traditions—in 2018 he curated Dancing Platform, Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches and Downtown Dance, a series of performances, conversations, and walking tours for Danspace, and in 2019 he followed it up with …they stood shaking while others began to shout, a dance work partly inspired by the 19th-century Black Shaker community that Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson led in Philadelphia. Diving once again into his research of Cox Jackson and working with reconstructed Shaker dances, POWER was another feat of reimagination: structure and form, along with identity, turned over and over again to create a kaleidoscope of representations.
Hadar Ahuvia, Gabriela Silva, and Annie Wang put on the voluminous skirts Wilson had just prepared and turned in toward one another. Wilson sat down on a bench placed downstage, facing them. The rest of the company dressed in the clothing set in the open wings on stage right. In silence, the three dancers began to move through an adagio phrase, extending limbs at once loose and highly tuned. Midway through, a spiritual began grounding their movements with a strong downbeat. When a few men joined in, bringing the women shawls and buttoned up dickeys, the music became more uptempo, aided by their stomps and claps. Their exits were ecstatic as they charged offstage right for another costume change.
They returned in dance wear, repeating the initial phrase in a large unison group as Wilson sang from a small red book, open like a hymnal in his lap. Watching these nine different bodies perform simultaneously was like watching one large body swaying. Their idiosyncrasies lent a breath to the group dynamic, creating a brief whole from so many distinct parts before dispersing again.
Jonathan Belcher’s colorful lighting design amped up every shift in mood. Amid a neon yellow background, Ahuvia and Silva placed themselves in a close, perpendicular relationship and introduced us to the second phrase of POWER. With palms upturned, their small shakes gave way to a larger sweep of the arms that dusted up high and down low. Later, their fists and elbows pumped up toward the sky. This vocabulary served as a foil to the first, more tenuous and searching phrase we had grown accustomed to through repetition; seeming to emanate from the inside out, it carved a spectrum from joyful to mournful and back again.
The mundane business of dressing and undressing operated as an analog to these two distinct movement phrases. The costumes, designed by Enver Chakartash and Naoko Nagata, traded dark practice clothes and lighter hued dress clothes—some decidedly anachronistic, like the coats with tails—with various hats and scarves, transcending time and place. And just like the choreography, they were built to accumulate or shed. At one point, the dancers let loose to club music; a little later, they were more formal in a sort of square dance. They swapped positions in a dos-à-dos fashion, their box formation drawing tighter with every round.
As they played and reconstituted their looks and moves into ever more amalgams, nearly every “what if” manifested. The patterns grew larger and more expansive, only to contract. Wilson provided a near constant percussive presence, maraca in hand, voice clear and steady. Two quartets resumed a square dance to a song belting, “When you walk you have power / when you sing you have power / when you pray you have power.” Internalizing this message, they broadened into a large galloping circle before leaving the stage to Silva. She reprised the first phrase, infusing it with a new vulnerability: flinging her arms with more abandon, bending deeper, and reaching higher with every lift of her heels. Often, those on the perimeter of the stage supported those dancing with their voices or encouraging claps; no solo dancer was ever left alone.
Wilson joined the serene Lawrence Harding for a moment on stage right, marking through some steps as they looked out upon the group dancing. A sublime male duet shifted the choreography off-script with low skimming leaps. A series of solos then traversed the stage. Testimonials in their own right, they gave us one more glimpse at the fast footwork of Ahuvia, the cool fluidity of Paul Hamilton, and the impeccable timing of Michelle Yard, hitting the perfect balance on the last note of the song. All these episodes lent the uncanny feeling of witnessing these artists’ direct experience of something divine.
As the final, hypnotic quartet took shape, more than a few audience members wiggled and bobbed in time. Graciously, Wilson gave everyone a chance to participate during the curtain call, as he led a call and response. It seems impossible to overstate the impact of experiencing such a collective spirit in motion after two years of a pandemic that has caused us to still be afraid of close unguarded proximity with one another. But for 70 minutes, all those fears receded in the wake of something bigger, boundless, and yes, more powerful.