Choreographer Reggie Wilson would like to remind everyone who hasn’t seen “The Ten Commandments” in a while that the story of the Exodus is about 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, not a triumphant trip to the Promised Land. Stylistically and thematically, “Moses(es),” his new work presented Friday at the American Dance Institute, is a meandering 70 minutes of contemporary dance. Wilson researched “Moses(es)” during a 2010 residency in Jerusalem and then spent time ruminating on latter-day leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Zora Neale Hurston. Yet the piece is much easier to appreciate if you stop looking for the subtext and instead seek to enjoy this choreographic mashup, which is set to a fascinating mix of klezmer music, dance pop and African American spirituals (sung live and recorded).
It also helps if you know that two decades ago, Wilson was a protégé of the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. In 1990, Naharin was preparing to leave New York for Tel Aviv and to take over Batsheva, Israel’s renowned contemporary dance company. Wilson was set to go with him, but he suffered a career-ending knee injury. Naharin’s signature Gaga style is wonderfully repurposed in “Moses(es).” The dancers aren’t superstars but have personality to spare. Gaga movement is contorted and herky-jerky, and when performed well, it appears the dancers are cutting loose. Wilson’s choreography asks his dancers to swing their arms and jump with abandon, but usually from a crouched African dance position, heavily pounding the balls of their feet into the floor.
Many sections featured the eight dancers roaming together in a wedge shape or forming lines that fell apart. One particularly fun section had the dancers repeatedly line up to play an aborted game of leap frog. Sometimes, a guy would slice the line with a jete, other times the men would grab Anna Schon, a tiny firecracker of a dancer, and suspend her as she struggled. Purposely conveying a sense of going somewhere but getting nowhere is risky in modern dance, and “Moses(es)” lacks an emotional arc as a result. Like the long-ago Hebrew leader, we enjoyed the occasional manna from heaven, yet wanted more, and never arrived in that land flowing with milk and honey.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.