“He had given Israel back the notes to songs. The words would be according to their own dreams, but they could sing,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote of Moses in her 1939 novel “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” New York-based choreographer Reggie Wilson’s “Moses(es),” a dance work inspired by Hurston’s work that made its Boston debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art on March 27, similarly explored the power of storytelling through art. In Wilson’s piece, performed by himself and the eight members of his Fist & Heel Performance Group, movement, song, spoken word, color, and light combined to produce a kaleidoscopic array of interpretations of the Biblical story.
“Moses(es)” employed a variety of styles of movement in its interpretation of the story, from almost literal pantomime of the finding of the baby in the bulrushes to balletic arabesques to rhythmic stomping. The dancers themselves sang gospel songs such as “Eli, Eli (Somebody Call Eli),” while the recorded score included the diverse sounds of Louis Armstrong’s version of “Go Down, Moses,” the house anthem “Follow Me” by Aly-us, and klezmer, a musical tradition rooted in Eastern European Jewish folk song. Color and light also helped tell the story of the crossing of the Red Sea: The dancers wore red costumes and at times were bathed in red lighting.
For David J. Henry, director of performing and media arts at the ICA, this diversity is part of the piece’s appeal. “When I saw [‘Moses(es)’] for the first time, I loved the dance, I loved the content, I loved the music especially,” he says. “I also loved that it was a strongly visual piece, with the colors and costumes. With us being an interdisciplinary space, [‘Moses(es)’] seemed to fit the ICA.”
The performance mirrored the varied influences on the work’s conception: Wilson traveled extensively in Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Mali to gather material for his piece. As executive director and producer of the influential contemporary performing arts center Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts), David R. White worked with Wilson in the early stages of his career. White, who was in the audience for Friday’s performance, said that during his travels in Africa Wilson noticed the recurrence of a Moses figure in many local folklore traditions.
In a Q&A after the show, Wilson also discussed the influence of concepts of fractal geometry, particularly the research of mathematician Ron Eglash on the presence of fractal patterns in traditional African design, on his work. “Thinking about fractal symmetry is useful for understanding numbers, repetition, scaling,” he said. Repetitive movements characterized many of the dance passages in “Moses(es),” in keeping with Wilson’s engagement with the interplay between unity and multiplicity, pattern and variation, that characterizes fractals.
Even the ICA’s theater space served as a source of additional meaning in Wilson’s piece: The back wall of the theater is glass, with a view of Boston Harbor. The sea was thus literally present in the background of the dancers’ movements, and the score, which included the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” engaged in a lighthearted dialogue with the setting. “It wasn’t too literal?” Wilson jokingly asked the audience of the staging during the Q&A. “I had a big fear of that.”
Speaking to The Crimson prior to the show, Henry emphasizes the importance of performances such as “Moses(es)” to the ICA. “[The ICA] is bringing to Boston things that people might not otherwise see, and it shows that provocation, inspiration, and reflection can be found in the theater as well as the galleries,” he says.
“I hope that [‘Moses(es)’] gives people a visceral sense of the beauty and complexity of the world,” Henry says when asked what he hopes the audience took from the performance. Wilson, on the other hand, sees his work as driven by ideas as well as physicality. “My work is about figuring out the relationship between postmodern dance and African culture,” he said. It is thus evident that even for those most involved in the work, “Moses(es)” is open to multiple interpretations: Rather than telling a single story, it examines how different people tell the same story in different ways, each according to his own dreams.