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Robert Moses' Kin

'Woman Spelled This Way'

by Toba Singer

February 9, 2007 -- Kanbar Hall, San Francisco, CA

A question comes to mind as I leave this evening’s performance, and persists all the way to the keyboard as I sit down to write my review, “Aren’t there some comparisons that deserve to be made between the work of George Balanchine and Robert Moses?” Is it a fair question historically? I’m not sure because it is coming from a visceral place, and though Kanbar Hall was packed with dancers and actors who also happen to be academics from Stanford University, I felt no pressure whatsoever to defend what was becoming my thesis. Instead, I was feeling pressed to answer another question, “Where did I get such a crazy idea?” I saw William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite” last week, and when I took in Moses’ “Lucifer’s Prance,” and later in the program, “Speaking Ill of the Dead, ” I found myself following a thread that began with Balanchine, where Forsythe and now Moses were the continuators, consciously or not.

The world premiere of “The Wall” in tonight’s program put into words what has been apparent in Moses’ body of work for some time: For this choreographer, music is aptly identified: it is his muse, his diva, the reason he moves and moves others. If there is anything as schematic in Moses’ mind as an aesthetic hierarchy, women would come next—after music and before everything else.

Seated at opposite ends of a long table, Moses and Aleta Hayes, a vocalist in the Odetta range (and a faculty member at Stanford), have a conversation. It opens with Hayes’ singing the folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Then they talk about what it’s like to be Black in a white world, followed by another song that showcases Hayes’ range. It is a siren song that is sensual and obliquely seductive. Then comes Moses’ take on a woman’s version of “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” Hayes asks Moses what is the worst thing that he has ever done to an “ex.” He can come up with nothing. After another song and a little prodding from Moses, Hayes confesses that the worst thing she has ever done was to enlist her new boyfriend’s help in moving her out of her the apartment she shared with her “ex.” Moses wants to know why she did it. A little embarrassed at her own candor, she replies that the new boyfriend was “better.” While Hayes sings, Moses beats out a rhythm on the table and scats a riff of his own. Who contributes the brick and who contributes the mortar to the erection of “The Wall” is up to the audience to decide. On the surface it’s a simple enough looking construction; it’s the foundation that leaves you feeling bemused.

Like Balanchine, Moses’ steps make up a lexicon all their own. Triplets that change direction, arms that pose and dispose of questions, speed-demon cannons that inject volleys of conversation as they break out or up into sextets where the smallest piece of real estate is hosting a virtual mandala of poses or kaleidoscopic interpolations. Unlike Balanchine, Robert Moses’ works are “about” something, and the back story is political in the most personal sense, as in “Speaking Ill of the Dead,” where black-clad dancers are variously soldiers or the corpses they are stepping over or the next of kin who hear the words, “We regret to inform you…” where the voiceover details a long list of losses in the context of the prerogatives assumed by warmongers, ending in our loss of liberty.

In the evening’s world premiere of “Penance,” to a bountiful score played live by the Feinsmith Quartet, dancers wear costumes designed by Mary Domenico that are white with briar-like wisps of brown across the midriff. They could make you think of a crown of thorns or the kind of switches that have been used by men to chastise all slaves, as well as relatively free women and children, alongside animals. Men throw women forward who then fall back as if being baptized. Dancers pulse in place and there is floor work by the women where they raise up their heads in counterpoint to the work the men do standing. There is a sidebar couple always a little stage right or stage left of the ensemble breaking out into horizontal lifts, the women held like parcels, and then a resolution consisting of anointments and appointments, mysterious symbols that hold no interest for me; for others, obscurantism is clearly more comforting than reality, which harbors faults, flaws and disappointments.

“Lucifer’s Prance” opens with chimes to music by Philip Glass, whose ritual-friendly repetitions have found a place in the works of several contemporary choreographers. The grappa-to-violet chromatic scale of the backdrop, lighting and costumes, enrich the music. Bliss Kohlmyer Dowman is the star of Moses’ no stars company. She is featured in nearly every piece, a standout among great movers because of a theatrical presence that she brings to the work. Raissa Simpson is showing a quiet authority that unleashes enormous power in her solos and duets. Over the years the men in Robert Moses’ Kin have never demonstrated a willingness to strike an authentic camaraderie, but that is beginning to change as men with greater basal strength and more performance experience take their place alongside those who have been culled from studio classes and pickup companies. In the context of very powerful dancing, there were more wobblers than you would expect from a professional company, and more than the occasional plodding athleticism that tends to undercut the richness of the velour skirts the women wore. No matter what dance genre, each costume must be as carefully carried and wielded as a prop. An awareness of the different drape of one or another article of clothing is essential to the performance quality. One sees that consciousness in Robert Moses and Bliss Kohlmyer Dowman when they partner wearing white costumes by Kim Webster in “This State of Annihilation.”

In recent years, Moses has included guest choreographers in his programs, an exciting development for the most part. I found that Amy Seiwert’s piece, “Slowly Watching Memory,” a world premiere, delivered far less than it promised in its opening moments, where the lighting and lantern sets and the first strains of “Rothko Chapel” by Morton Feldman were perfectly complemented by costumes in a shade that can only be described as Mac lipstick’s Russian Red. However, the choreography was fussy and studied, and unlike in Ballet where difficult steps are made to look easy, these were relatively easy steps made to look difficult. Unless there’s an artistic reason, watching someone fail to fully execute a developpé is not my idea of an evening out. It’s one thing to show the extension unfurl; it’s another to grimace and grunt in the process, or “try” to turn while your partner is holding you across the ribs in such a way as to obstruct it. If the message is that both life and dance are difficult, I think most of the audience may have known that before they came.

This is the third iteration of “Woman Spelled This Way,” but it is by no means Robert Moses’ first time out when it comes to this theme. In “Word of Mouth,” RMK’s concert of several years back, most of the words were spoken by or about women—from Mother Mary to the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. While Balanchine devoted most of his creative life to reshaping women, Moses comes at the question from the flip side: deconstructing them. For both choreographers, music is their point of departure. For Balanchine, the story and the steps were one. For Moses, the story sends out the steps. It would be vulgar to suggest that Moses is the Balanchine of the Modern idiom—whatever the Modern idiom may be. Besides, that is not who he is. What both artists do have in common is a surety of their own purchase, power, creative genius and the impact of their work. Robert Moses’ Kin deserves audiences of the size and scope of Balanchine’s. It’s time for Moses to spend less time wading in the water(s) and more time parting them. There’s milk and honey on the other side and contrary to what one may choose to believe, it won’t be there for All Eternity.

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