Reggie Wilson: Shaker worship, African diaspora through a postmodern dance lens

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There are many things that leap to mind when we think about the Shakers — their communal country communities, their elegantly functional architecture and design, their piousness and celibacy. But there is more that is often overlooked, like how seriously they took physical movement, especially the ecstatic rhythmic whirling and dancing that led outsiders to give them the name still commonly used — and that they were rigorously egalitarian and inclusive regardless of ethnicity.

It is the confluence of those last two that first got choreographer Reggie Wilson's attention. In particular, when he first heard the story years ago about a community of Black Shakers in the middle 1800s, an alignment of surprising insights that was too tempting to pass up.

"I think my mind exploded a little bit," Wilson said during a phone interview last week. "I don't know how much of a capacity I had to put those two seeming opposites together."

Now, after years of detailed research about Shaker lives, along with his own deep understanding of African diaspora movement traditions, Wilson and his Fist and Heel Performance Group bring their investigations to the Berkshires with a series of productions.

It begins Saturday, July 6, a Hancock Shaker Village, with a presentation of his work " they stood shaking, while others began to shout," which has been adapted for a roving performance in the Round Stone Barn and the 1910 Barn. The following week, Jacob's Pillow will host the premiere of Wilson's evening-length piece "POWER," based on similar source material, which tries to imagine the intersection of Shaker dance worship with the shout traditions of the African diaspora, all considered through experimental postmodern dance.

"I consider [Reggie] to be equal parts choreographer, anthropologist and ethnographer," said Jacob's Pillow Director Pamela Tatge. "He's noted for the depth and extent he researches his subject before he enters into it."

Diving deep into history and exploring how its themes find physical movement has been a major part of his work. For his 2016 piece "Citizen," he began from an image of an African-born slave who fought in the Haitian Revolution and was elected to the French National Convention to consider themes of belonging and not belonging. His 2013 piece "Moses(es)," which was performed at Jacob's Pillow in 2014, is inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's retelling of the story of Moses to consider the migration of African people around the world.

His current work is inspired by the story of Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free Black woman born in 1795, who in her 30s found her calling as a wandering preacher. Her travels eventually led her to the Shaker community in Watervliet, N.Y., where she was given a dispensation to create her own Shaker community back home in Philadelphia. It was a community that ran counter to the familiar quick-take story about Shakers, who are often simplistically seen as similar to the Amish or Quakers. The Philadelphia Shaker community was urban, mostly Black, and mostly women.

"Being confronted with the idea of a Black Shaker was too [enticing] a door to not knock on and go in," he said.

On a visit to Jacob's Pillow in 2017, many people reminded him about the Berkshires deep Shaker history, and he began exploring and thinking about it more. That led to two residencies in the area over the past year through Pillow Lab, one in the fall where he and the company spent time at Hancock Shaker Village digging into archives, objects, and simply being Shaker space, and a technical residency in the spring to create a dance around their findings.

To create the dances, Wilson digs deep into what life may have been like in a free Black community at the time, and then to imagine how they may have danced. Wilson calls his approach "kinesthetic anthropology," or "thinking about the movement and action of humans in different communities, cultures, and ethnicities."

It isn't easy. "Dance over history is difficult to reconstruct," he said. "Whether it is a romantic ballet or a modern dance classic from the 1930s, [it's] always challenging."

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Although the Shakers were meticulous record-keepers, the nature of their dance practice could vary widely. There are reports and accounts of worship, along with footwork-patterns and images. But there was great variety depending on time and space — a dance in Kentucky would be different than one in Maine, depending on the individuals in the community, what the standards of propriety may have been, and whether they were a young, new community or an aging one.

That's where a lot of the practical research came in, and why he brought the company to spend time at Hancock. He described the architecture and the sense of space, and the unexpected windows into their world view. He remembered being especially fascinated with their herb gardens.

"Just the practicalness of it starts to crack open your imagination," he said.

From there, they began to add their own background and knowledge to the process. Wilson has built a deep understanding of the dance and movement traditions of the African diaspora, which he has researched at length in trips to the American South, the Caribbean, and across Africa. He describes his company as engaging in "Post-African Neo HooDoo Modern Dance," a phrase he admits that can be as expansive and hard to define for themselves as it would be to define Black Shaker worship. "It's a bit of a crapshoot," he said. "But let's make some educated guesses."

Wilson is originally from Milwaukee, and he grew up in a Black church and regularly saw folks having charismatic religious experiences, even if he and his family didn't. But he said his approach to dance has always been formed by the postmodern, experimental scene he found when he moved to New York in the 1980s.

"I've always been thinking about how to fold together and think about the parallels between religious movement expression — primarily by how Black folks on the planet do it — and its relationship to postmodern dance," he said. "That has set up some interesting experiments and questions over the years."

Even if Wilson doesn't share the spiritual purpose of dance, he has great respect for the way they made it a central part of their lives. That Shakers saw dances as divine gifts that they could receive and share with one another, and that physical movement is a way to find meaning and inspiration — just as Fist and Heel describes their belief "in the potential of the body as a valid means for knowing."

"Dance is important and always has been," Wilson said.

In addition to the performances of "POWER" at Jacobs Pillow July 10-14 at the Doris Duke Theater, Wilson and his company are planning a free Community Ring Shout at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield on Monday, July 8, described as a "stimulating, transformative sing-a-long for participants to restore and connect their rhythmic voices and bodies" through tales and songs from Africa and the African diaspora.

The performance at Hancock Village has been performed in other spaces, such as St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery. It features eight dancers and three vocalists (including Wilson).

Hancock Shaker Village Director Jennifer Trainer Thompson said that Wilson had been visiting the Village before they even knew about this project, and were eager to welcome him and help the company as they "wanted to absorb the place" by exploring the archives and asking questions.

"One of the goals of Hancock Shaker Village is to realize that this is not just a living history museum," she said. "It's an embodiment of all their values and what they stand for and the fact that they are still living."


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