About the title of Reggie Wilson’s new work The Tale: Npinpee Nckutchie and the Tail of the Golden Dek: Forget it. Or wait, don’t completely forget it, because—although neither tale nor tail is on view at DTW—the title clues you in to the folk element that colors the piece and to the notion that quests of all kinds often end in your own backyard, your neighborhood church, the club down the street.
Ever since Wilson formed his company in 1989, he has focused on the rituals, music, and dance of the African diaspora, filtering them through his contemporary sensibility (he’s been known to call what he does “post-African/Neo-HooDoo modern dance”). His pieces are rhythm rich—full of the sound of voices shouting and singing harmonies, of feet stepping and hands clapping. His troupe consists of eight performers, four who are primarily dancers (Paul Hamilton, Penelope Kalloo, Michel Kouakou, and Pene McCourty) and four dancing singers (Rhetta Aleong, Elaine Flowers, Lawrence A.W. Harding, and Wilson).
Jonathan Belcher’s set and lighting turn the stage into a field of silver. Long Mylar streamers curtain its back and sides. As the performers, wearing handsome black clothes by Naoko Nagata, enjoy themselves doing the Chicago social dance Wilson once happened on in a visit home, the streamers turn gold or twinkle through smoky blue. “Stepping” is a very cool dance, with an easy simmer underneath it. People sidle in and out of one long line, casually reaching for a hand now and then, facing a partner, turning under someone’s arm. When Flowers treads in place, her hips, shoulders, and elbows engage in intricate motion so subtle it’s barely visible; not far from her, Penny Kalloo is giving the same movements a tiny bit more grease and heat. Both are wonderful to watch.
The music sets up two primary atmospheres you might think would be at odds with each other. In one, people dance, play games, get sexy. Music from the ’30s, like that recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, creates a sweet slick under the busy feet. Grace Jones sings “La Vie en Rose.” The performers boogie down in a circle, arms swinging, knees twisting: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” At other times, the live performers’ voices rise in praise—Flowers’s surprisingly deep sound, Aleong’s high, slightly nasal one; Harding’s baritone; and Wilson’s call a tone or so above it. The power of those harmonies!
The musical styles cross-fade amicably, and the stepping slips easily between sacred and secular. For instance, at one point, the four dancers pair up and play a gesture game. Facing each other, sparring partners whap their arms around, now and then blocking each other’s move or pushing their opponent’s arms down. Meanwhile, the other group sings an enigmatic folk tune about a rooster and his hens, but they stop singing when three of the dancers quit what they’re doing and stand in a file, slowly circling their hips and undulating their arms. Wilson leads the way into a very different song that tells of Adam in the Garden hiding from the Lord. He and his group come up to the dancers and put their faces close as if sniffing for some fine human fragrance. Or for sin.
Wilson creates powerful and intricate rhythms. In several passages, Hamilton, Kalloo, Kouakou, and McCourty, traveling in a unison squad, lay down patterns with their feet that form a rich counterpoint to the music’s rhythm, sometimes going against the obvious accents. Another time, they dance big, arms churning, feet splatting, legs flying up, while the singers tread in place.
In a final repeat of the gesture game, the performers’ dogged force makes the moves seem like hard work, maybe even a ritual. Flowers and Harding lead Hamilton and Kouakou in and position them, and after Kalloo and McCourty have also labored for a while, the two “guides” take their hands and lead them quietly away. Tall Hamilton and small Kouakou keep at it until they fall to the floor and, heads almost touching, roll faster and faster around that junction. The end. The “tale” is an enigma, but in it heaven and earth sing out together.