Two dancers take tradition and run with it

Reggie Wilson's dancers will perform "Moses(es)" this weekend.
Reggie Wilson's dancers will perform "Moses(es)" this weekend.
Posted: September 20, 2013

What on earth could the River Nile and Riverdance have in common?

They are the sources for two vastly different dance works opening Thursday as part of the Fringe Festival's final weekend.

While both flow from traditional dance cultures, their choreographers, Reggie Wilson and Colin Dunne, reroute their Africanist and Irish disciplines into contemporary dance idioms.

New York's Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group opens at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with the world premiere of his Moses(es), while across town at the Painted Bride Art Center, Ireland's Dunne solos in the Philadelphia premiere of his 2008 Out of Time.

When Wilson founded Fist & Heel in 1989, he called his stylistically Africanist ritual movement, which he blends with contemporary dance, "Post-African Neo Hoodoo Modern Dance." His company was last seen here at the Painted Bride in 2006 while working on The Tale: Npinpee Nckutchie and the Tail of the Golden Dek.

If that title had a wonderful Brer Rabbit slyness, Moses(es) has an exponential slant: "Show me your Moseses, and I'll tell you who you are," said a scholar at Hebrew University, where Wilson was on a research fellowship from New York's Foundation for Jewish Culture.

He'll be telling the story of Moses "through the lens of varied Moses stories," Wilson said in a phone interview.

"His name in Hebrew means the action of how he was taken from the Nile," Wilson said. "It's not just the narrative story, and not just the biblical Moses or the Jewish Moses, visually or linguistically. There's more than one thing going on in this - I'm influenced by the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Harriet Tubman as well. They both give different Moseses."

The choreographer noted that "anthropology removes Egypt from Africa, but the songs and cultures from places I have traveled [in Africa and the Middle East] most influence this piece."

Fractal symmetry, he explained, "is an organizing principle for everything I am interested in. The research seemed chaotic, disparate, massive - how will I tie all this together?"

Wilson never worked with a dramaturg before, but, for this project, he called on a Northwestern University professor, Susan Manning, who will lead a post-show discussion on opening night. She introduced him to Ron Eglash, an ethnomathematician. Wilson consulted with Eglash, whose career studying fractals in African architecture and culture can be seen in one accessible example: the transformational geometry in cornrow braiding.

"How numbers work in different African cultures are conscious and utilized in all African cultures," Wilson said. "So the counting systems in material culture, like basket weaving, offer an analysis for the organization of movement of individual bodies in time and space and in relation to each other."

After leaving his leaderhip role in the step-dancing show Riverdance in 1998, Colin Dunne spent a decade studying contemporary dance at the University of Limerick, where he now teaches. He also spent those years unloosening the mental corset that stiffens the bodies of Irish dancers, freeing his arms to fling out, his torso to bend, allowing his head to snap, even barefooting it.

"Not adding to traditional dance," he says, "but going deeper into it."

The artist spoke via Skype about Out of Time, which both explores Irish step dance from as long ago as the 1930s (via archival video footage) and displays how he dances the form now. Although Dunne said it isn't autobiographical, it does chronicle his evolution from child prodigy to a multimedia master storyteller who puts a contemporary stamp on traditional dance.

Born in the English city of Birmingham to Irish parents, he began taking step-dance lessons when he was 3 and won his first World Championship title at 9. He said tap was an early influence, especially Gregory Hines; he has worked with Savion Glover.

Of his Riverdance days, Dunne said, "As a showman, I wasn't a good fit. So, when I took over choreographing from Michael Flatley, there wasn't a role to fill, but a personality, and I wasn't comfortable with that."

Now, he's comfortable with contemporary dance, which, unlike Irish dance, "is not learned moves, but figuring out how the body moves. But I wasn't expecting my whole being to be deconstructed."

He also began experimenting with radio mikes on the shoes, "and that opened up whole new worlds of sound that were relevant and exciting."

Now he uses release-based movement, "sometimes without shoes, and it seems really folky to make a solo show of these elements of film, sound, and text. It felt like I wanted to make a more personal work, a conversation between me and these films. It allowed me to reclaim my ownership of Irish dance that I lost with Riverdance."

Dunne, who plays the piano by ear, immerses his body in his musicality. His sound score for Out of Time is pedal percussive. He manipulates the rhythms live in the space through sound technology, "through my feet," he said.

"Intimacy is a factor [in performance]. I like to see a performance and go toward it and not sit there and have it handed to me on a plate. So, I think that you'd want to make the kind of performance you'd like to see as an audience member."


Fringe Finale Footwork

Moses(es): 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $29

Out of Time: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; post-show discussion Friday, at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $35

Information: 215-413-1318, www.fringearts.com

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