CONCORD -- When African-American slaves were denied their ritual drums, they created rhythms with their hands and feet, a practice the white culture dismissed as "fist and heel worship ing." The Brooklyn-based Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group has spent nearly two decades making sure those rituals aren't forgotten. But rather than presenting faithful historic renderings, Wilson's choreography reinvents the tradition in postmodern works that mine styles from throughout the African d iaspora.
Wilson's latest dance, the 50-minute, inexplicably titled "The Tale: Npinpee Nckutchie and the Tail of the Golden Dek," is a collage of song and dance that subtly and often effectively illuminates connections between folkloric influences and popular social dancing, from such early favorites as the Charleston and the Suzie Q to hip-hop and stepping, a languid social line dance from Chicago that pairs shuffling walks and sidles with well-oiled hips and shoulders that barely dip and sway with cool detachment, as if they're just along for the ride. The music, ranging from spirituals and work songs to R. Kelly, shows the range that Wilson embraces.
The opening prologue, "SILLY," presents a series of personal connections and separations, from the sensual and heartfelt to the playful and contentious. But it's "Big Apple" that lays the groundwork for what follows. Wilson, who moves easily between dancer and personable emcee, puts the performers through a quick revue of early social dances, resurrecting such colorfully named moves as "spank the baby" and "dusty, dusty."
This is the most entertaining section of the whole piece. I wish Wilson had let his dancers cut loose for longer, until we really got the juice out of each dance's distinctive style and vocabulary. As the piece progressed, you could clearly start to see bits and pieces of those dances in Wilson's distinctive choreography, an engaging fusion of old and new, the squat stomps and shimmies of traditional African dance morphed into familiar club moves and tinged with a postmodern edge.
The two big stepping sections go on too long, but the first one is interrupted halfway through when three dancers complement their phrases with a vivid gestural vocabulary that implies a hidden story underneath all those smooth moves. Hands reach and grasp, arms dart away from the body at sharp angles in a powerful, cryptic iconography. A dirge escalates to a fevered work song, accompanied by vigorous clapping. A spiritual evokes the screaming, stomping fervor of a revival meeting. The most touching moment is a duet between the tall, elegant Edisa Weeks and the luminous Penelope Kalloo, whose gestural explorations evoke the innocence of children.
The work's seamless segues between musical/dance styles, combined with a sometimes jarring shift in tone and time frame, makes the piece seem disjunct and unfocused at times. But the multiplicity reinforces what I suspect Wilson was after in framing the dance within a club-like setting of tinseled curtains around the stage: In even the most common popular moves, connections from past to present, from there to here, are right in front of our eyes.