Fasten Your Seat Belts
Robert Moses' Kin. Directed by Robert Moses, with guest choreographers Alonzo King, Margaret Jenkins, K.T. Nelson, and Sara Shelton-Mann. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), through March 14. Call 621-7797.

The white-knuckle moments came early on opening night of the Robert Moses' Kin Dance Company -- right before intermission, in fact, with the world premiere of Buffalo Avenue (The Patriots). The most athletic piece of the night was also the bumpiest, since the dancers' kamikaze dives and rough-and-tumble partnering didn't always connect (at one point, a sharp collective intake of breath made clear what everyone was thinking, which was, "That's gotta hurt").

Still, the dancers recovered quickly from their jittery first-night spills, and Buffalo holds promise once the rough patches have been smoothed over. The work's appeal lies in its fresh American modernity, from the costuming -- women in earth-toned tank tops and capri pants -- to the angular, rhythmic choreography, which references Graham in its deep second plies, contact improv in the push-pull partnerships, and flying somersault dives to the floor. Moses himself lights up the stage in a brief but eye-popping duo that finds him suddenly holding a dancer who launches himself backward into Moses' outstretched arms with lightning speed.

Company dancer Jose Comoda, whose stage presence grows more commanding with every season, also dances a striking phrase, which begins as he backs himself into a crowd like an uncertain child. Buffalo's pacing is uneven, though, due partly to the score, which opens well on Trilok Gurtu's loping rhythms but eventually grows monotonous. The work is loosely hung on ideas of patriotism in the black community, and its fearless athleticism suggests heroism to a point -- the tricky part now will be ironing out its timing and lifts without losing its invigorating energy.

There are kinks in the program's other full-company dances as well: Laugh to Keep From Cryin' (That Sh*t A*n't Funny) was influenced by the comedy of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, who managed to alienate as often as they inspired, by daring to mix sharp-tongued commentary with entertainment. Their influence on the dancing is marginal, unfortunately, although there are hints of Pryor's contentious material in Bliss Kohlmyer's series of agitated, argumentative gestures, which end repeatedly as she flings herself into her listener's arms. "Listen to me -- no, wait, love me," she seems to say. Dancers in vivid purples and greens stretch themselves into long, lean lines and spiral through attitude jump-turns, but aside from Tristan Ching's strong extensions and brave solo exit, the comedians' maverick spirit seems lacking.

Glass, a six-section 1998 work, is trademark Moses: small, quick opening gestures, swooping and swiveling travel sequences, and odd inverted angles. Yet there is a listless quality to it, despite some engaging solo work: Echoes of Graham resurface as Comoda, in a stretchy skirt, leans into a series of slow sculptural poses, and Crystal McCreary slips into a loose-limbed groove. After this, the company's knockout performance of The Sweet Dark Land at January's National Performance Network showcase makes one secretly wish to see them dance high-octane pieces like that one more often.

Most complicated of all are the solos set on Moses by outstanding local choreographers: Lines Contemporary Ballet director Alonzo King, Margaret Jenkins, ODC's K.T. Nelson, and Sara Shelton-Mann, formerly of Contraband. These are dance-makers who lean toward cerebral, stripped-down movement, an aesthetic that fits Moses' formidable strengths as a dancer. But the solos overlap so that it's not clear whether there was supposed to be a unifying element other than Moses. The action takes place in a churchlike setting, with wooden folding chairs to one side and a backdrop of clouds projected on a screen overhead.

King's untitled work suggests a man suffering from a crisis of faith, with a series of flying jumps and fleet-footed turns that segue into silence as Moses sighs heavily, reclines, falls to the floor, and appeals to some heavenly power, after which he begins running in circles, white shirttails flapping like wings. Shelton-Mann's ending is the most fascinating, and maddening, part. After an awkward transition in which Moses' dancers set ritual paraphernalia like candles and skulls out on the stage, an Ice Cube treatise on ghetto life booms out over the speakers and suddenly Moses, a Stanford professor, is striking gangster poses. Scenes from civil rights marches unspool on the screen, intercut with clips of Moses dancing on a traffic divider or in front of a mural. Meanwhile Moses mirrors his own movements on screen, springing into one airy barrel turn after another and hurling himself violently to the floor. It feels tacked on -- to other solos, to the program as a whole, and to Moses himself.

-- Heather Wisner

Power Play
A Cabal of Hypocrites. By Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Allen McKelvey. Starring Thomas Redding, Kikelemo Adedeji, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and Ian Bedford. At the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr. in Walnut Creek, through March 14. Call (925) 295-1900.

Good theater entertains. Better theater entertains with meaning. The best theater does both of these things, presented in a manner or context that threatens an established order. AmeRican CitiZeNs TheatRE's energetic production of Mikhail Bulgakov's A Cabal of Hypocrites may not threaten any current regime, political or theatrical. But with committed performances and bright staging, the production provides engaging insight into the dangerous power of sharp-edged comedy.

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