BECKET -- Choreographer Reggie Wilson re-read Zora Neale Hurston's "Moses, Man of the Mountain" as he set off on a trip to Israel, Egypt and Turkey.
On the trip, he met the uncle of one of his dancers, a scholar living in Jerusalem.
"He lays out images of Moses made in different times, in different countries," Wilson said, "and says ‘show me your Moses and I'll tell you who you are.'"
The idea of more than one Moses struck Wilson then, the movement of a story traveling across time -- Moses in the Torah, in the black church, Musa in Islam.
"One place I landed," he said: "It fascinated me that these people followed this man through the sea. That took an enormous amount of faith. What's going through their minds in transit? After all they have endured, they're in this terrifying place with the water swelling up on either side, but they have a dream of where they are going, and it's better than anything they've had before."
This week, Wilson will bring his new work, "Moses(es)," to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
Ella Baff, artistic director at Jacob's Pillow, has known Wilson's work such a long time, she feels they have grown up together, she said
"He takes his work very seriously in terms of research," she said.
Wilson develops a work over time, thinking, looking and traveling and absorbing a wide field of ideas into a multilayered piece.
"He has a deep cultural sensitivity about the world," she said, and a generous and inclusive perspective.
He has not put the narrative of the Exodus story into movement, she said. He has drawn a work from images, references, sketches, pebbles and bricks, thoughts and fragments.
The dancers are not trying to tell the Moses story, Wilson agreed, but to get at the core message behind it.
He sees, at the core of the story, people moving from one condition to another, from slavery to freedom, and the man who led them.
It could be Martin Luther King, he said. It could be Harriet Tubman traveling north with the Underground Railroad and risking the road south again to lead more people.
It could be what moves a dancer to work with one choreographer for two years, or for 50.
In his own company, he listened to perspectives on Moses from an observant Orthodox Jew who reveres him to a dancer who barely knew the story.
He asked what it meant to be Egyptian or to be Hebrew when Moses lived. Western historians tend to extract Egypt from the rest of the African continent, he said, but Egypt is African, influenced by Saharan nomadic cultures, by the Middle East, by the Greeks. Nubia, an area in Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, conquered Egypt and was conquered by it.
As he thought of the spread of the Moses story, Wilson connected it to fractal symmetry -- an organizing principal in mathematics in which a shape or pattern repeats in different sizes. A tree branches, and the branches branch, and then the limbs, and then the twigs, and then the veins in a leaf.
Western mathematicians began to use this kind of symmetry in the 1960s to organize information, he said, to predict weather and crowds, to organize complex systems. But African cultures have used this idea, this kind of repeating pattern far longer in many forms -- in divination, weaving, artwork, hairstyles.
So Wilson will weave the idea in movement.
His work draws from many traditions of movement, Baff said, from the sensitive movement of his first Israeli mentor to the movements of dance he has seen across continental Africa and the Middle East and America. Dances can spread like stories.
"There's shimmying in the Lindy Hop, and in Middle Eastern dance, and in Ethiopia -- one movement in so many different places," Baff said.
In Moses(es), she may find movement from the Classical Modern era, from African dance traditions or the Middle East, movement he purposely morphs. He will take a movement he encounters in Jamaica and "Wilsonify" it, she said.
Just as, in listening to jazz or blues, " you'll hear a passage and the understanding goes right through you, Reggie has movement in this piece that's wildly surprising," she said -- studied or observed or intuitive.
For her the piece has weight and humor.
"It's exalted," she said. "It's marvelously entertaining, even though it's taken seriously as art," she said, "proving once again it can be both."
She also finds power in the company. Wilson's Fist and Heel performers have many body types, and they come from many places and parts of the world.
As an ensemble, they form their own community and culture on stage, Baff said, moving sometimes individually and sometimes together, relying on each other.
They perform with physical expression, not only in their bodies and in their movements but in their hands and feet and faces -- and voices.
The company will sing live spirituals as part of the performance, along with recordings from African musicians to Louis Armstrong singing "Go Down Moses" to Klezmer from the Lower East Side of New York.
Wilson will weave together movement and music, stories into his own symmetry of ideas, charge it with energy and let it go.
"You can't control images as you can words," he said. "Let me show you these images that came to me -- do you see the black church, the Haitian revolution, belly dancers, mathematics, poetry?"
In the end, he comes back to people on the move.
He may see Martin Luther King's "I have been to the Mountaintop," or Harriet Tubman's going back and forth or the Israelites in the desert. He sees the moment of setting out.
"You're at a crossroads," he said, "where you're remembering where you've come from with the dream of where you're going to go."
If you go ...
What: Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group present ‘Moses(es)'
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Wednesday to Sunday, July 9 to 13 -- 8:15 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Admission: $22 to $38
Information: (413) 243-0745, jacobspillow.org