Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group

Cal Performances presents
Photo Peggy Woolsey

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
September 23rd, 2017
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley

I think any performing arts writer uses favorite language components to describe what they’re seeing – favorite terms, favorite adjectives, favorite phraseology. I certainly do. Though one word that I rarely use is masterful. But every once in a while, masterful is the most fitting descriptor, and this weekend’s performance of Moses(es) by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group at Cal Performances was special. It calls for the use of ‘masterful.’

Devoid of the wings and the cyclorama, a fully lit, deconstructed space greeted the viewer as they entered Zellerbach Hall. A red suitcase was placed amidst ample silver tinsel that had been strewn about the stage. Artistic Director, choreographer and performer Reggie Wilson entered, standing downstage right. He straightened his clothing, smiled at the audience and tossed wrapped candy out to them. In these opening moments, Wilson connected directly with the audience, and so right away, the line between performer and viewer had become porous. One by one, the company came out into the space, introduced themselves, announced what I assumed was their birthplace as well as giving a statement of time, which I again assumed was how long they had been working with Fist and Heel Performance Group. 

As “Go Down, Moses” scored the action, the cast assembled in a wedge formation upstage left, nodding their heads, while Wilson packed all the tinsel in the suitcase and rolled it away. He returned, and with the company, began harmonizing and vocalizing. From that instant, you knew that everyone onstage was a consummate interdisciplinary artist, skilled as movers, vocalists and percussionists.

Moses(es)’ early choreography spoke of familiar motions and strong water imagery, water, of course being integral to much of the biblical Moses story. Performers walked, knelt and rolled in the space; bodies were ceremoniously laid down on the ground, like a baptism. Legs swam in the air and dancers dove into second position, lopping up an entity (presumably water) and then letting it go. Layered on top were recognizable gestures – pointing/following the horizon and cradling a baby.

In preparation for seeing the work on Friday, I had read that questions of leading and following were intrinsic to Moses(es) and that exploration was so, so clear at many points in the seventy-minute composition. Mid-way through, a trio began dancing in unison and as their phrase material continued and accumulated, one would take over leading the group, then another, then another until each member of the trio was experiencing the choreography at their own pace, with no leader whatsoever. A later quintet had some similar qualities. Two dancers introduced a movement phrase; three more joined a number of beats after (in canon) and then eventually the five found their way back together in unison. A call and answer song, which was accompanied by a simultaneous physical pattern, was another example of this overarching query. A cyclical, circular entity with no starting and no ending, and consequently, no leader and no follower.

Framed by a disco ball, each individual brought his or her own unique expressive dance downstage center to a song where the pervasive lyric was that of “follow me.” They played with tempi (sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down), choreographic style and genre as well as physical intensity. And a mathematical segment brought patterning and repetition to the table, though it was a bit on the long side and its connection to the whole of the work was a little lost on me.

Near the end of Moses(es), cannoned movement sequences recurred, with the performers staggering the start of various choreographic phrases. The water imagery from the beginning also made another appearance with arms and legs swimming through the space, and the company once more pointing along the horizon. And in a fantastic cadence, Wilson asked the audience to join in with some of the singing and vocalizing right near the end of the work, engaging with the audience and again, breaking the barrier between viewer and performer.     

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