Robert Moses' Kin

February 24, 2000

Robert Moses and Tristan Ching
Photo by R.J. Muna

Robert Moses’ KIN

Cowell Theater

San Francisco, California

February 24?27, 2000

Reviewed by Ann Murphy

Every once in a while a choreographer seems to explode into bloom after years of diligent, talented, if craftsman-like work. With the benefit of hindsight, we assure ourselves that every dance that came before the sudden flowering can be seen as a harbinger of the future, giving logic to the mystery of artistic development. But sometimes the shift to a new level of artistry is so great that, even lumped together, the past work seems a timid indication of what was possible. My phalaenopsis orchid is like that?for weeks it is an interesting but rather spindly stalk, then suddenly a gorgeous hot pink blossom materializes. Who knew?

Robert Moses, who has been at his craft as a choreographer since 1995, and before that danced under the eye of Brenda Way in her company ODC/SF, has had two dance tracks going in his repertory simultaneously. One has been a lyrically driven, flourish-filled modern dance style with a strong ballet line and propelled by spiritual yearning for transcendence. The other is dance/theater that is more sculptural, raw, often grim, and struggles?usually in anguish?with race and racism. As an African American, Moses straddles these two worlds, often uneasily.

But with his latest work, Lucifer’s Prance, the choreographer, who also teaches at Stanford University, has brought together his taut, sculptural impulse with his lyrical and spiritual drive and crafted a dance of haunting beauty, musical subtlety and great emotional depth. It is as though he called up the grandmothers and fathers of modern dance for general inspiration, then bowed to his African ancestors for a combination of spiritual wisdom and movement caprice. The refined and implicit drama, and the reverberant emotional breadth, are all his own.

Set to excerpts of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, Lucifer’s Prance repeatedly juxtaposed figures held in attitudes of almost grieving stillness with small groups, costumed and lit (by José María Francos) in sumptuous clarets and burgundies. As the small ensembles evolved, they moved in elegantly simplified, sensuously molten patterns that combined mythic tension with sweeping lyricism. When a woman repeatedly jetéd in the opposite direction from a man, he, seemingly in response, fell onto his back, teetered on his shoulders, then shot forward with a shoulder spring. There were beauty, folly and the physics of bodies moving in counter-force sewn into the fabric of every such duet.

It was this compositional clarity that anchored the work in a kind of sure architecture and allowed Moses to create both sculptural volume and cinematic line. This clarity also solved the problem of the emotional hyperbole that had often accompanied his lyrical work?it was replaced by profound restraint. Fragments of dances past surfaced like memories, then faded?bits of Denishawn arms, a Graham drop, Wigman geometries, then West African kick steps, and Bojangles’s tapping. Meanwhile, images of crucifixion, boxing moves, a sexy hike of the butt, a fragment of jitterbug, iconic Egyptian movement, or frantic jetés swirled with multiple meanings and emotional mystery while seeming to rise organically from Moses’s choreographic universe.

Fragments of the exceptional talent revealed in Lucifer’s Prance peppered the program, but nothing else cohered in the same way. Moses’s sizzling scat dance Never Solo (1995), performed to The Last Poets’s litany of jazz geniuses, had a vaudevillian shimmer and a fierce edge. The work-in-progress Blood In Time had stinging humor and pathos, but it felt fragmented. And the frenetic Untitled Collaboration 2000, choreographed by Moses, Sara Shelton Mann and Robert Henry Johnson, and the Untitled Solo #7?Solo for Two People in Half the Time by Moses (beautifully danced by Hillary Curtis and Brooke Fries), seemed to retread old ground, although more surely. Even when the work seemed desultory, Moses and his thirteen dancers, many of them students or former students of his at Stanford, danced with laserlike purpose and technical luster.