By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
He began working in the family store in Philadelphia at the age of 6, when most kids are still struggling to tie their shoes. He was educated first as a Catholic -- his mom's religion -- then as a Black Muslim -- his sister's faith -- and as a Holy Roller and a Baptist, thanks to his grandmothers. His mom noticed his interest in music and got him an organ when he was four, but he didn't like it. She sent him to accelerated visual art classes at Temple University when he was 12, but he didn't like that, either. Then one day, after his fellow high-school archery students used a neighbor's backyard as their bull's-eye and got the class canceled, he was given a choice: substitute archery with football, volleyball, or dance. At a slim 125 pounds, football would have been suicide, and he found volleyball a bore, so Robert Moses, choreographer and director of Robert Moses' KIN, chose dance. Then dance chose him.
Moses, now 38, a dance instructor at Stanford University, and a spring-tight mover, is in the midst of a two-week San Francisco run of his evening of modern dance. It is a program that fuses intellect, eros, and emotion inside an intensely physical, often rugged landscape full of echoes of his own eclectic training: ODC/SF, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, ballet, club dancing, Afro-Haitian, even tap. Themes wind through the concert's five works like underground rivers that repeatedly surface and submerge, but his recent work is rarely polemical. Instead, ideas quietly undergird the dances, from race and gender to justice and truth to the deep, sweet, overlooked complexity of the blues. More personal dilemmas also suffuse his compositions, subjects like loneliness, intimacy, sacrifice, and sorrow. Occasionally a symbolic gesture, like the T shape of crucifixion, crops up repeatedly, as in "Lucifer's Prance," a fiercely beautiful and Dante-esque ensemble piece created last year and set to sections of Philip Glass' album Akhnaten.
But Moses' desire to communicate -- which bursts out of his motley, intensely polished performers as though their very beings depended on it -- is offset by a wary refusal to be pinned down. As he talks, he twists in his chair away from his listener, looking ready to bolt, already halfway to somewhere else. From such physical torque Moses creates an incessant play of contradictions; the effect, in both the work and the man, is of a search for the impossible unity of opposites.
"I think it's interesting to see something go in one direction and then get pulled back in the opposite direction," he said last week in San Francisco. In the new "Dirt Roads and Back Doors," a paean to both the rural south and the blues (with selections from Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, among others), the men lift the women, the women pitch away, and the men tug them back with an elegant muscularity that's at once sensual and compassionately conflictual. "It says something about the relationship, but it first creates physical shock in the viewer to see them doing something unexpected." How they do the unexpected is also important, he notes, but the constant idea is to fill the space between things as often as possible. To do so, there must first be space to fill, which may be why Moses' dances are forever packing in steps and speed and proximity and emptying them out again with silence or stasis.
A few days before my conversation with Moses, as rehearsal progressed at the S.F. Dance Center on Oak Street, the dancers avoided the white plastic buckets collecting water from the leaking, peeling ceiling, dancing as if the curtain had just risen on the Gershwin Theater stage. In "Back Roads," the statuesque Danielle Colding stood mutely amidst the frenzy of the other dancers, strength and despair sculpted into her stance. During "Lucifer's Prance" Amy Foley pitched away in jeté, returned, and did it again as Brian Grannan fell onto his shoulders and launched himself back up onto his feet, seeming tied to Foley by an invisible bungee cord. Elsewhere, the women hurled themselves dangerously at the men, and the men caught and held their partners in beautifully strange and unnameable positions. Then, just as the dances came to seem predictably heterosexual, a mysteriously communal trio of men formed. As the work accumulated, it became clear that Moses avoids easy reductions or quid pro quos. Instead he moves deeper into pared-down complexity, even when the dances seem ornately decorated by syncopated limbs.
That ability to distill arises in part from his 10 years at ODC/SF, where artistic director Brenda Way allowed each dancer the latitude to approach similar movements differently, and every dancer had to know what all the others were up to. But his drive to find elegant expressions of complex situations is also a drive to snare the ornery truth -- such as that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Mohammad refuted Malcolm X, that racism is so deep lots of people can't even see it, or that we're all elementally flawed. It's knowing as a child that if the patrons of his family's store had no money, then his family had none, either. And knowing as a man that understanding how people view you is important, but that "after a certain point, it becomes a rampaging beast and you have to let it go." There's melancholy in the effort to hold contradictory ideas together in one's mind. For Moses, consequently, a certain sorrow finds its way on stage, even when his choreography is joyous. Still, he remains undaunted. "The idea of sorrow -- I like that," he said. "It's real."