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Ten Minutes With an award-winning choreographer – Reggie Wilson

Reggie Wilson recounts a ring shout. Voices call and respond as men and women move in a circle in a pulsing tresillo, keeping the three-beat rhythm while singing in ecstatic ritual. Here and in the Caribbean, those enslaved from Africa created new forms of dance. This one is alive today on the Sea Islands off Georgia’s coast and elsewhere. Wilson, artistic director of Fist and Heel Performance Group, says it reminds him of the Shakers. On a bright spring day at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, he  takes a break from rehearsing Power, which he will bring to the Pillow and Hancock Shaker Village this summer.

When did the work begin?
Six years ago, I first heard the name of Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson. She was a free woman of color, and she founded her own Shaker community in Philadelphia. Jackson was a working woman, a spiritual leader, a traveling preacher with her own way of being with the spirit, and the community she built went on to live and thrive for 60 years. I see in her a parallel to Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers. Listening to their inner voices gave them power when illiterate, lower-class women didn’t have access to authority and inspiration.

How did Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson inspire this dance?
I began to wonder what worship could look like in Jackson’s community. How would prayer, music and dance have grown here over generations? White Shaker communities held music as a central part of their worship, and ecstatic dancing gave them their name. African people who came to the Americas enslaved carried their own dance and music, belief and mythologies with them. When they encountered Christianity, they infused it with their stories and rhythms and created new forms of music.

How did she and her community live and worship?
She already had a following when she founded her community in Philadelphia. Not many descriptions have survived to tell how they practiced their faith day to day, or how the community sustained itself. We can only imagine the gifts and inspirations her people felt and shared. She wrote an autobiography though, and in her writing the separation between daily life and the spiritual realm was often thin. She would describe something practical and move freely into myth and belief, how she was traveling through this world, this tree, this time, these stars.

How does she connect with African-American traditions like the ring shout?
As I thought about Jackson, I thought about African-American religious songs talking about power—songs about Jesus, the blood of Jesus and the singer’s own strength. This light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. In my work, I often think about the relationship between contemporary dance and African diaspora cultures. The choreography here may involve steps and movements from Brazil, Senegal, the American South and the Sea Islands. I draw on my travels, and the company members draw on their experiences, their own cultures and dance worlds. Almost all Shaker communities had black brothers and sisters, but in most, that meant a few people of color in a larger community that was white. In Jackson’s community, in a community of black Shakers, how would their traditions have evolved? Would they have felt freer to involve their own African traditions in their worship; would they have felt validated? I wanted to know.

How have you explored the Shaker influences in her life?
I often travel to research my work, and when I came to Jacob’s Pillow last spring for a visit, I learned that Hancock Shaker Village lay nearby. Walking through the village moved me in profound ways I had not expected. I had read about Shaker history, but in the fields and workshops and communal spaces I found a story different from what I had in mind. I had thought of the Shakers as strictly ordered. It’s fascinating how much they were about advancing technology and human experience. They were not just focused on the next life. They were building a utopia here and now.

How have you envisioned Shaker dance in this work?
Jackson lived for a time with the Shakers at Watervliet before she founded her own community and received their blessing. In creating choreography around her, I have drawn on what scholars now believe Shaker dance looked like.

How do Shaker and Africanist traditions speak to us now?
The Shakers believed in consecrating time to build a better world. They believed in equality and compassion. They were very patient. Their work and belief had to come from their desire to live in this way, in this place. For me, the light and joy I see in their architecture, in their furniture, and their work, grows from that belief. Their vision resembles Japanese design and Buddhism in their simplicity, and African cultures in a communal life that allowed individual fulfillment. Shakers wove patterns in their dancing, as rows of people moved together across the floor. Talking with a mathematician, Jesse Wilson, and imagining those patterns in three dimensions,
I realized they were weaving with their bodies. They were forming braids.      

Reggie Wilson and Fist and Heel will give a site-specific performance July 6 and a Community Ring Shout July 8, both at Hancock Shaker Village. Power will premiere at Jacob’s Pillow July 10-14, with a PillowTalk July 12 and Master Class July 14. 




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