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Kinetic Energy 

Robert Moses' Kin

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
Robert Moses takes a large bite of his rather undancerly bacon burger lunch and watches the NBA highlights playing on the restaurant TV with the same look of impenetrable concentration he gets while creating a new dance. He's been asked to describe his company's genesis, but what he comes back to (after, that is, shouting, "Nice shot!") is the selection of its folksy, feel-good name -- Robert Moses' Kin.

"We were performing in the Black Choreographers Moving Festival in 1995 -- we had performed together a few times before -- and the organizers said, 'What are you going to call yourselves?'" he explains, slurping a wayward onion. "And I said, 'I better go away and really think about that.'" And I ran 'kin' past all the dancers, and it really felt right."

Five years later (a significant time span in the perilous world of modern dance) and on the verge of an ambitious anniversary season, the carefully chosen moniker still amounts to truth in advertising. When, in rehearsal, one of his dancers stubs her toe on the floor, Moses stops his instructing cold. "I'm OK, go on, go on," she says, but Moses is already at her side, examining the sore appendage in the manner of a father kissing a boo-boo. During the remaining three hours, he approaches each dancer in turn: "How are you doing? Everything OK?"

It wouldn't be outrageous if one were to answer no. The workload is heavy, including no fewer than four premieres -- three by Moses, one a collaboration -- all radically different in style and subject. There's Lucifer's Prance, a dark, Carmina Burana-like piece to music by Philip Glass that starts with a hot intensity and works itself to fever pitch; Blood in Time, an emotionally draining exploration of how gesture binds communities, set to texts by Moses and Bill Whithers; Untitled Solo #7, which is actually a duet for two women; and a three-part work among three choreographers and three composers, the music for which the dancers heard only days ago, and only in fragments.

But if Moses does play patriarch, the family over which he presides is one of dedicated individualists, a collective of eminently human performers who execute each phrase with fierce concentration and imbue every movement with their own inimitable personalities. They remain in the company through a kind of natural selection, and their identities are strong enough to handle everything Moses throws at them and more.

Moses plucks most of these superhumans from Stanford University, where he now teaches after a stylistically dizzying career spanning such companies as Twyla Tharp's, American Ballet Theater, and ODC. "I have to like them as people and they have to be an individual, meaning they have to be OK not being perfect but being who they are," he says of his audition criteria. "This is how the movement's going to be special rather than being a cardboard cutout of phrases."

Such untechnical considerations drive Moses' creative process too. The collaborative piece on this weekend's program, for instance, began as an exercise in Cunningham-lite methodology: Choreographers Moses, Sara Shelton Mann, and Robert Henry Johnson were to be paired off with composers Marcus Shelby (jazz), Kelly Takunda Orphan (world music), and Bruce Ghent, the latter working with the drummers of the Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble. None of the choreographers would see one another's works in progress, and none would hear his work's score until the premiere performance.

Those quixotic ground rules fell apart fast ("We decided we didn't want a train wreck," Moses says), but no matter: "The idea first of all was that I like all these people," Moses says. "Sometimes you want to do something where you're like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and you're in a bar and you're like, 'Hey, let's make a dance.' And then there are all the highbrow reasons -- stretching your limitations, stretching the dancers -- too."

Also on this weekend's program is a retrospective of Moses' work for the company, a project that proved humbling. "It's a fallacy, the idea that you like everything you make," he says, mopping up ketchup with his final fries. "In dance we don't have the luxury of painting something and putting it in the corner or painting over the canvas. You have to put it on the stage to know if you like it or not. I have 50 works I could have pulled from and I only took four selections."

Whether he likes most of his dances or not, Moses' mélange -- it's not quite a hybrid -- of modern, ballet, jazz, tap, and just about everything else movement has won a loyal following in the Bay Area, and the company's future looks bright: more funding, more touring, more commissions, more residencies. But Moses' first priority, appropriately, is providing for his own. "I'd love to figure out how to get the dancers on a real salary, health benefits, all that stuff," he says. "These people work really hard trying to get what it is that I'm putting out there. I'd love to make sure they're taken care of."

About The Author

Rachel Howard


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