San Francisco dance lovers had a rare glimpse of Robert Moses performing his own work this weekend, in a seven-minute solo entitled The Slow Rise of a Rigid Man (elsewhere in the program notes “a Ridged Man” – perhaps a deliberate play on words). In a tight spotlight on the dark stage, against lyrics by the gruff-voiced David Worm that proclaimed that he was fresh out of ideas – “Got no more alibis / Got nothing to feel / Got no messages that must be spread / Got no blood on my hands from the dead / Got no hope for a better tomorrow / I got no way to stop the sorrow” – this marvelous piece of irony unfolded as the imposing Moses, in street clothes, repeatedly cradled his right knee, negotiated the floor like a Tai Chi warrior, and carved sculptures out of air with his enormous, poetic hands.

Dancers of Robert Moses' Kin © Steven Bollman
Dancers of Robert Moses' Kin
© Steven Bollman

Any notion that Moses, 19 years after starting his company, Robert Moses’ Kin, might be slowing down or running out of ideas, bum knee or not, was dispelled not just by this captivating solo offering to the muses, but also by the almanac of movement and emotion on display in the two ensemble pieces that bookended the program.

His ineffable Profligate Iniquities opened the evening, set to a suite of Sephardic romances. Mesmerizing arrangements by Accentus Ensemble weave Spanish and Middle Eastern themes with North African percussion, flute-like and stringed instruments, and a hypnotic mezzo soprano voice.

Suggestive of the ceremony and of a series of more informal encounters surrounding a Jewish wedding, the piece is dominated by a metal fixture suspended from the rafters that resembles a sci-fi rendering of a Jewish wedding canopy. Or a sci-fi prison. Or both. This canopy is densely hung with long filaments of metal beads that refract light such that a person standing inside the fixture seems to wholly or partially disappear – perhaps signaling the ebbing of the individual spirit upon marriage. The dancers approach this structure with caution and rarely venture under it, apart from the intrepid Norma Fong and Jeremy Bannon-Neches, who perform an arresting duet in silence under the canopy. They rustle the beads, which sound like rain. As the couple’s movements intensify, the gentle rustling becomes a wind-whipped storm.

Katherine Wells and Brendan Barthel © Steven Bollman
Katherine Wells and Brendan Barthel
© Steven Bollman

The duet form reigns in this piece, with no apparent narrative build – though the opening encounter between the brittle, elegant Katherine Wells and the powerful Brendan Barthel, with its repeated stabbing motions of the heart, wittily suggests a backstory to the impending wedding. In the second duet, the commanding Crystaldawn Bell plays puppetmaster as Victor Talledos grovels. Later on, Dexandro Montalvo tries unsuccessfully to rein in a tiny firecracker in the person of Norma Fong. Brilliantly danced, each vignette felt like the deconstruction of an intimate encounter.

Moses’ movement phrases often start achingly slow, with sweeping weight shifts, then erupt into a shudder or twitch. There is poetry in the deliberate gestures of the hands and fingers – cupped over the eyes or mouth, a frantic flutter, a sensual flick of the wrist, a swift karate chop. So much contemporary choreography is ridden with pointless tics and twitches, a reflection perhaps of our ADHD culture, but every gesture made by these dancers seems born of a deep need to communicate, to connect, their expressive hands plucking invisible objects out of the air and making a gift of them to their partner, to the ensemble, to the audience – to their Kin.  

Moses’ Nevabawarldapece returns from last season, though this was my first encounter with it. It is an ambitious, unruly beast. The puzzling title makes sense if you say it out loud after a couple of beers. Program notes tell us that this work “explores critical moments of change in America’s liberation movements, insurrections, and revolts.” We seemed to be witnessing a workshop of ideas, rather than a finished theatrical piece, set in a bare studio in which the dancers execute movement phrases set to an assortment of folk, blues, funk, and Afro-Celtic tunes as well as lengthy harangues by activist poet Carl Hancock Rux, crammed with economic statistics and multiple-choice questions about our sexuality.

Crystaldawn Bell of Robert Moses' Kin © R J Muna
Crystaldawn Bell of Robert Moses' Kin
© R J Muna

In one of the more riveting passages, Carly Johnson is, quite literally, steamrolled by the rest of the ensemble. They prostrate themselves on the ground in a long line – I imagined them in protest outside a nuclear facility – and shuffle over her supine body. We see the panic-stricken Johnson struggling to lift her head, then an arm, as the mob plows inexorably over her.

All 14 company members delivered virtuoso performances; particularly searing were those by Jackie Goneconti, Vincent Chavez, Brendan Barthel, Carly Johnson, Katherine Wells and Dexandro Montalvo, the last man standing after the hour-long marathon. Unlike Profligate Iniquities, however, which meandered genially through fields of intoxicating Sephardic polyrhythms, Nevabawarldapece derailed early on, like a bullet train that jumped the tracks with no driver in the cockpit. As the piece spun out and my note-writing hand started to cramp, I resorted to haiku:

Protest embodied / Wild verse, like oil on water / Exhaustion ensued.

***11