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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Looking for Moses(es)

by Marina Harss

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

“Nobody knows what Moses looked like. That’s part of the fascination,” the choreographer Reggie
Wilson says with a laugh, discussing some of the ideas behind his new work, Moses(es), which will have its New York premiere at the BAM Harvey on Dec 4. The biblical story of the Exodus has been in the back of Wilson’s mind for years—who hasn’t heard about the burning bush and the crossing of the Red Sea?—but it acquired new layers of complexity when he traveled to Jerusalem in 2010 for a residency sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Culture (now the American Academy in Jerusalem). Once there, he met Avigdor Shinan—a Moses scholar at Hebrew University who happens to be the uncle of one of his dancers, Anna Schon.

It was Shinan who coined the word “Moses(es),” evoking the many faces of the man who delivered
the Israelites from slavery. “Show me your Moses and I’ll tell you who you are,” Professor Shinan tells his students at the beginning of each semester, laying out a variety of images. Such reflections on the multifaceted nature of myth dovetailed with Wilson’s reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a retelling of the Moses story as a Southern American folk tale. Among other things, Hurston’s book is an allegory of slavery and liberation in America. In his usual non-linear way, Wilson has pried this narrative apart, examining it from all angles.

How do other Moses figures, like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, relate back to Old Testament notions of leadership? What does it mean to lead? Or to follow, for that matter? (These last
questions are of particular interest to a choreographer, whose work revolves around leading a group of dancers, but also requires him to follow the vagaries of his own mind.) And what is freedom? At a recent rehearsal, Wilson read out a short passage from Hurston’s book: “He had found out that no man may make another free. Freedom was internal.” This segued into a conversation with the dancers about the meaning of artistic and interpretative freedom, in relation to their performance. “Allow yourselves more freedom,” he quietly urged them. The tired dancers went back to working on a passage that, on the surface, had very little to do with Moses: it involved walking, throwing, and catching—each dancer exhibiting a slightly different timing—as well as turning jumps with one leg swinging in front. Wilson’s musical selections are equally difficult to pin down; they include klezmer, calypso, house music, songs recorded at a South African Zionist church, and the dancers’ own voices.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Like Hurston, who wrote novels and plays and undertook ethnographic studies but also performed and directed theater, Wilson’s work exists at the meeting point between research, reflection, and performance. “I’m actually going out and doing field research and trying to convert that research into performance,” he says. For this reason his work has many points of entry and develops gradually, over a period of years, through a process of accumulation and selection. The Good Dance—dakar/brooklyn, performed at BAM in 2009, arose out of a Guggenheim fellowship that took Wilson to Senegal and Ghana in 2002 to explore new ways of moving and thinking.

That research led him to a collaboration with the Dakar-based choreographer Andréya Ouamba. In Moses(es), his partner is the dramaturg Susan Manning, a professor at Northwestern who has helped Wilson to organize information gleaned from residencies in Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. His research has dipped into areas as disparate as racial identity in Egypt, the mystical tradition known as Zar, and fractal geometry, to which he was introduced by the book African Fractals, by Ron Eglash. This extensive material has been organized into memos for the dancers to read and discuss. “There’s a lot of stuff,” Wilson says, “I encouraged people to move in the direction they were attracted to.”

These are only a few of the questions that led to Moses(es), but don’t expect to see answers laid out literally in the work. As in the process that led to The Good Dance, the raw material of the research is de-contextualized, subjected to an alchemical transformation—from information to form, movement, feeling. The logic is indirect, poetic. As Wilson puts it, “the things that start off from a hyper-literal place become abstracted through the process of juxtaposition.” Or, in the words of his costume designer Naoko Nagata— who created designs inspired not by the Bible but by a cookie jar Wilson remembers from childhood—“the piece may have nothing to do with Moses.”

Reprinted from the BAMbill.

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York. Her dance blog,
Random Thoughts on Dance, is at

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