Churches aren’t just places of worship. They’re often also historic buildings, community centers, performance spaces, and meeting places for senior lunches, Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings, and other social get-togethers. They are spots you may have walked past and admired but not really thought about deeply.
Reggie Wilson, a New York choreographer, was interested in the concept of these roles beyond worship while visiting African American churches in the last few years. He was on a quest to explore the relationship among church, race, and Manhattan’s downtown dance scene, where churches such as St. Mark’s and Judson Memorial are home to experimental dance.
Wilson’s church-specific choreography was then performed twice as a “platform” for New York’s Danspace Project, the term Danspace executive director Judy Hussie-Taylor uses for “exhibitions that unfold over time” as performance events.
Hussie-Taylor wanted to bring the Danspace format to other cities, starting with Philadelphia, and Wilson was her “guinea pig and curator," he said. He spent nearly three years making it happen, expanding his artistic gaze beyond African American churches here to historic congregations more generally.
The result, beginning Thursday, is Grounds That Shout! (and others merely shaking), presented by Philadelphia Contemporary in partnership with Partners for Sacred Places and the Danspace Project. It will feature three days of performances this week at the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, and a procession next week that audiences will follow among three churches in Society Hill: St. Peter’s Episcopal, Old Pine Street Presbyterian, and Mother Bethel AME.
For Grounds That Shout!, Wilson visited Philadelphia often to select the churches and Philly choreographers to include. “What is consistent to the New York platform was that I invited contemporary choreographic movement artists to make new movement pieces in relationship to site, history,” he said.
But even the basic concept of the dance is different between the two cities, Wilson said, as “downtown dance” is specific to New York, where one of the first such companies was named after the church that housed it: Judson Dance Theater.
The Philadelphia equivalent? “Let’s call it contemporary, experimental, avant-garde.”
This weekend’s performances at the Church of the Advocate will feature Wilson’s work with his own company, Fist and Heel, as well as the work of two Philadelphia choreographers, David Brick and Germaine Ingram, who also helped him navigate Philadelphia. They were trusted colleagues, as he’d known Ingram for a decade and Brick “since we were 16 at a dance camp together.”
“Philadelphia is very different [from New York],” Brick agreed. “It’s more process-oriented. It’s a Quaker town.” That translates to dance is in collaborations and public showings of works-in-progress in Philadelphia, whereas New York is “concerned with being more polished, finished at any stage."
“Philadelphia as a city early on had a major black middle-class," Brick said. “That is particular about Philadelphia and shapes everything about Philadelphia, even the experimental art.
“When Reggie came to Philadelphia, he really wanted to be respectful of Philadelphia’s artistic culture. Germain and I were birds on his shoulder.”
Next week’s procession, on May 11, will include performances at the three churches and performances as the audience walks among them. Meg Foley will present a short dance at St. Peter’s. Then the experimental dance troupe <fidget> will transport the audience from St. Peter’s to Old Pine, where Lela Aisha Jones | FlyGround will perform. From there, audiences will follow and watch the Almanac Dance Circus Theatre en route to Mother Bethel, where Tania Isaac will present the final piece.
“It took me forever and ever to land on which artists I liked, through a really long process” Wilson said. "I got a long list from Philadelphia Contemporary of everybody who worked in Philadelphia forever.”
Brick noticed a current theme in the project. “Sometimes people who are religious and artists kind of see themselves as separate and opposing places in this culture," he said.
“This place of finding meaning as audiences, groups of people together, has a meaning,” said Brick, who added he’s “not a churchy person. I don’t have a lot of experience with temples or churches."
“This is a place where dance and church actually share some things. See where the connections do lie.”
Wilson wanted that connection to run deep and wanted to give his artists insight into who walked the land before them. So he hired a local dramaturge, Arielle Julia Brown, to prepare a “dossier,” a 37-page document starting 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, when the Lenni Lenape moved to the area we now know as Philadelphia.
Brown went to services at each church and sat with the congregants. She wasn’t sure what they’d think of outsiders but was glad to see “how generous in spirit and welcoming they were.”
It was the perfect job for her, said Brown, who is also public programs developer at the Penn Museum.
“I am a Christian, and I engage theology in the traditions of womanist theology and black liberation theology,” Brown said. “I’m always curious about how congregations orient themselves, how they’ve moved over time, especially congregations that are this old, how they have moved across centuries, exploitation of slavery and labor, Jim Crow. Who are these people now?”
Wilson was interested in shout traditions in African American religions, in liturgical and praise dancing, in Shakers, and more. Along with compiling the dossier, Brown was available to answer artists’ questions as they were creating their pieces.
“One was interested in land and nature at large." Brown would prod: “Maybe you’re curious about what kind of trees or the medicinal uses of foliage in this area? Even a ‘no’ in that is still information for me.”
For Wilson, Grounds That Shout! is not about specific devotions.
“The churches are just a placeholder," he said. "It’s not just about Christianity, but I was thinking about religion, spirituality, belief systems.”
Reggie Wilson: Grounds That Shout! (and others merely shaking)
7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 2, and 8 p.m. Friday, May 3, and Saturday, May 4, Church of the Advocate, 1801 W. Diamond St. Procession at 12:30, 2, and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11, beginning at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Third and Pine Streets. $10-$15, philadelphiacontemporary.org.