How to Commune – The Brooklyn Rail

Three skirts awaited Reggie Wilson on the stage of the Strong Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, two folded up and one starched enough to stand on its own. As he walked, he greeted them like old friends, singing softly while gently folding up the clothes. This Thursday, January 13, 2022, the New York premiere of Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group POWER was an anomaly. So many shows had just been postponed or simply canceled as a result of the COVID-19 Omicron surge. Being in this sparse audience was a privilege and an enigma, which I heard more than one group of people debate outside of the theater, regardless of the strict pandemic protocols BAM had in place: was it a good any idea given this infectious variant? Should we even do this?

Fortunately, POWER answered this anxious question with a confident yes: the choreography testifies to the spiritual nature of communion. Wilson has long studied black worship traditions – in 2018 he organized Dance platform, places of prayer: darkness, churches and downtown dancea series of performances, conversations and walking tours for Danspace, and in 2019 he continued with …they stood shaking while others started screaming, a dance work partly inspired by the 19th century Black Shaker community that Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson led in Philadelphia. Diving again into his research on Cox Jackson and working with reconstructed Shaker dances, POWER was another feat of reimagining: structure and form, as well as identity, rotated again and 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 to each other. Wilson sat down on a bench below, facing them. The rest of the company dressed in the clothes set in the open backstage on the right of the stage. Silently, the three dancers began to move through an adagio phrase, extending limbs both loose and tightly tuned. Halfway through, a spiritual started to ground his moves with a strong downbeat. When a few men joined in, bringing the women shawls and buttoned up breastplates, the music picked up speed, aided by their stomping and clapping. Their exits were ecstatic as they charged offstage for another costume change.

They returned in dance gear, repeating the opening phrase in a large group in unison as Wilson sang from a little red book, open like a hymn in his lap. Watching these nine different bodies play simultaneously was like watching a large body swing. Their idiosyncrasies breathed life into the group’s dynamic, creating a brief whole from so many separate parts before scattering again.

Jonathan Belcher’s colorful light design amplified every mood change. On a fluorescent yellow background, Ahuvia and Silva place themselves in a close and perpendicular relationship and present us with the second sentence of POWER. With the palms facing up, their little jerks gave way to a bigger sweep of the arms that dusted up and down. Later, their fists and elbows were raised to the sky. This vocabulary served as a foil for the first sentence, more tenuous and more penetrating, to which we had become accustomed through repetition; seeming to emanate from the inside out, it cut out a spectrum from happy to sad and back again.

The mundane activity of dressing and undressing functioned as an analog to these two distinct movement phrases. The costumes, designed by Enver Chakartash and Naoko Nagata, swapped dark training clothes and lighter dress clothes – some decidedly anachronistic, like tailed coats – with various hats and scarves, transcending time and space. And just like choreography, they were built to build or lose. At one point, the dancers went wild to club music; a little later they were more formal in a sort of square dance. They swapped positions in a back-to-back fashion, their box formation tightening with each round.

As they played and pieced together their appearances and moved into more and more amalgams, almost all of the “what ifs” showed up. The patterns became larger and more expansive, only to contract. Wilson provided an almost constant percussive presence, maraca in hand, vocals clear and steady. Two quartets took up a square dance to a song singing: “When you walk, you have power / when you sing, you have power / when you pray, you have power”. Internalizing that message, they widened into a large galloping circle before handing the stage over to Silva. She echoed the first sentence, infusing him with a new vulnerability: throwing her arms with more abandon, leaning deeper and reaching higher with each lift of her heels. Often those on the perimeter of the stage would support those dancing with their voices or encourage applause; no solo dancer has ever been left alone.

Wilson joined the serene Lawrence Harding for a moment on the right stage, marking a few steps as they watched the group dance. A sublime male duo shifted the off-script choreography with small skimming leaps. A series of solos then run across the stage. Testimonials in their own right, they gave us further insight into Ahuvia’s quick footwork, Paul Hamilton’s cool fluidity and Michelle Yard’s impeccable timing, striking the perfect balance on the song’s final note. All of these episodes lent the eerie feeling of witnessing these artists directly experience something divine.

As the final, hypnotic quartet took shape, more than a few audience members squirmed and danced in time. Graciously, Wilson gave everyone a chance to participate in the curtain call, as he led a call and response. It seems impossible to overstate the impact of experiencing such a moving collective spirit after two years of a pandemic that has left us still fearful of unguarded closeness to one another. But for 70 minutes, all those fears faded away in the wake of something bigger, limitless, and yes, more powerful.

Joan D. Boling