writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Questions and Conversations

Robert Moses Kin
Kanbar Theater,
San Francisco, California
Friday May 8,2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy
published May 10, 2004

Robert Moses is one of the most gifted choreographers in the Bay Area, and watching him evolve as an artist has been among the deeper pleasures of my dance-writing career. Like Lucas Hoving before him, Moses has allowed himself to grow up in public and done it with a grace and courage one can only deeply admire. When he launched his company nine years ago, Moses’ rage and confusion appeared in performance like roadblocks he had to run into repeatedly, often violently, before his large talent got a grip on them artistically. These days to see him dance, which he does more cautiously but also more compassionately and knowingly, is to see a generous and rooted man unafraid of his material, whether it’s the jagged fury of race and politics, the abiding rhythm of sensuality, or the enduring balm of the spirit.

In the early days of the company, Moses’ language and concerns were bifurcated. His dance theater was often despairing, if not nihilistic, and he seemed to prowl theatrical space in frustrated search of a language to convey the existential condition of being black, poor, lost, or all of the above. At the same time, his more abstract dance sought spiritual renewal, and his passionate urgency often expressed itself in the choreographic equivalent of wonderful, headlong sentences, packed paragraphs and ecstatic dissertations. Over time, he brought the two halves into closer communication.

Friday, at the spanking new but far-flung Kanbar Theater in the new Jewish Community Center on California St., Moses achieved his deepest synthesis to date. The result was prolix but riveting choreography, where movements dashed out like the notes of a bee-bopper’s sax or assumed dense linguistic rhythms, then were given overall shape by Moses’ ever-deepening use of formal design. He has absorbed post-modern lessons and evolved an architectural appreciation of linear shapes, but uses them to enlarge his humanist and expressive vision of being. The result is modern dance that is cerebral, politically charged, emotionally expressive, and formally elegant.

The evening’s world premiere was entitled other gods, arranged for 8 dancers and set to an Arvo Part-style composition by Latvian composer Georgs Pelecis in which spare string sound dominated, including ascending and descending chromatic scales, repeatedly ruptured, and quixotically so, by the composer’s Romantic-style digressions. These shifts broke the magnetic bond that I had formed with the dance, but that was a small complaint next to the way Moses mastered his own complex landscape of solos, pairings and group formations. These slid from kaleidoscopic group patterns to expressive soliloquies, dialogues and group conversations. His phrases were full of undulating torsos, squiggly leaps and voluble arms. Stage patterns shifted beautifully. When willowly, Katherine Wells danced, or powerhouse Kate Foley, or when couples struggled, broke apart, then reconnected, you could almost hear the words the movement seemed to be saying and the relationships they reported on. Or you could feel the rhythm of the movement like a stream of not quite audible words. From this complex physical discourse Moses built a rich story of human longing, travail, and desire.

Biography which premiered last year, used a different sort of story in the form of a conversation from 1961 entitled "The Negro in American Culture" between black writers James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Lagston Hughes and Emile Capouya and moderated by the white literary critic Alfred Kazin, if such a conversation can be termed a story, which I think it can. "To be a Negro in this country and to be conscious is to be in a state of rage," the conversation began. The dancers were arrayed in two straight lines, one upstage running horizontally, the other stage right at 90 degrees to the first. Jose Maria Francos’ golden light bathed the stage. From these two lines, Moses staged a series of solos, "talking" eloquently, urgently, sometimes violently as the others watched impassively. "The Negro is the only one who understands the American white man." The dancers seamlessly inverted the L shape, then as seamlessly formed lines which in turn morphed into an abstract mass. Then they switched position and stood in another mass, their backs to us.

Moses changed his configurations with a silken ease, inverting the racial make-up of a group, as though to ask: what do you see if this dancer is black, or if the same movement is done by a dancer who is white, or Latin? Where in past work, voiceovers have often required our full attention and vied with the dance, Moses used movement here as restrained and lyric counterpoint to the discussion of racism and artistry, quietly spotlighting the color-coded nature of perception, especially here in the U.S., even forty years after the conversation.

The company next performed an excerpt of Tasogare (meaning "twilight" in Japanese) which is to be premiered later this month, with accompaniment by Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble drummer Jimi Nakagawa, Ellen Reiko Bepp and Kallan Yoichi Nishimoto. But it was in his closer, Cause, performed in conjunction with Youth Speaks, that Moses took a real back seat to language, and let some remarkable young poets with piercingly honest insights about race, gender, disability, culture and God to take center stage, sitting on stools, while the dancers fanned out on either side of them like a silent chorus.

If one hadn’t seen the connection of Moses’ dance vocabulary to language earlier, these astonishing young poets—Emiliano Bourgois-Chacon, Luke Brekke-Meisner, Katri Foster, Ise Lyfe, Jason Mateo and Tristan Ching—brought the point home. In between poetry sets, Moses unleashed his dancers in his own torrential and passionate response. The images may not have been as stunning as the images of a 16-year-old being called "bitch" as she folds her sexually violent boyfriend’s laundry, or the image of "the man" as the devil inhabiting and buying the souls of African Americans. But Robert Moses’ choreography inevitably conveyed its own unstoppable force, carved out in its own daring space.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 10, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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