Investigating Race

San Francisco Company brings ghosts out of the closet

San Francisco choreographer Robert Moses calls his company Kin. That's apt. While his works often tackle his concerns as an African American, his group is multi-racial, and the message comes across that we're all part of the family of man, all in our various ways both oppressors and oppressed.

Moses, who performed with one of Twyla Tharp's companies as well as with ODC/San Francisco, has been choreographing for his own group since 1995, picking up a bunch of awards and grants. The man knows how to handle space—how to draw the audience's eyes through patterns, how to make the stage picture rich and deep. At the beginning of Cause(2004), while Jacinta Vlach dances—moving her body lavishly, reaching out beyond the normal span of her limbs—nine other performers stand quietly, facing different ways, like frozen figures in a city plaza. The recorded voices of six poets known as Youth Speaks Members weave through Jonathan Norton's music, and later we hear, "But if there is a movement, why are we all standing still?" At which time, Vlach repeats her solo in another spot in space, with another arrangement of people waiting. Moses snags a political query and makes a world out of it.

The texts—not always easy to hear—strike out rhythmically, sometimes like rap, and against them Moses sets images of the outsider and the group, dissenting partners, and choirs of the like-minded. Lighting designer José María Francos lays luminous rectangles on the floor to frame vignettes. Facing lines of men and women morph into a semi-circle to surround a loner. When dancers are not still, they're jabbering fluently with limbs, heads, and torsos, and assisting one another (a woman, held almost parallel to the floor, walks up a man's body and presses him down).

Simpson and Kohlmyer in The President's Daughter
photo: Stefanie Motta
Simpson and Kohlmyer in The President's Daughter

Moses performs compellingly in his 1998 solo, Discongo, his decisive gestures softened by the Scherzo and Largo from Chopin's Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, op. 65In this piece, he doesn't leap and spin through space as his dancers sometimes do. He investigates his body as if it were a gadget, undulating his hips and shoulders, tracing patterns with his arms on the air, flickering his fingers, blowing us a (mocking?) kiss. He ends kneeling, one arm swinging like a pendulum losing power.

His fascinating style makes heavy use of arm movements, and by Speaking Ill of the Dead, they've begun to unnerve me. The powerful piece is driven by taped voices that break in and fade out of the intermittently jazzy score by Moses and David Worm: "We regret to inform you . . .", says one speaker as Ramón Ramos Alayo touches Raissa Simpson's turned-away back and shoulder. Men lift her, and one of them ceremoniously places a hand on her face. Everyone wears black. "Tyranny," we hear, and "injustice" and "destruction." And: ". . . of the loss of your. . ." (son, husband, daughter, lover. . .). The dancers' restless arms twitch and shake, but most often they smoothly tie and untie imaginary knots, lash, and reach out to grab what cannot be held. The gesturing seems to stand for churning emotions, for the turmoil of war. It becomes mesmerizing, as if arms had wills of their own, and I want them to stop sometimes.

Temperamental gestures also proliferate in The President's Daughter, but here we interpret them in terms of a story. In this gripping piece based on Thomas Jefferson's affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, Simpson, in one corner, bends over a ramshackle baby carriage, while an imposing white perambulator stands diagonally opposite. Michael Separovich clearly stands for Jefferson. Bliss Kohlmyer could be his wife and Katherine Wells his daughter. Women in chorus (Kohlmyer, Wells, Vlach, and Amy Foley) vigorously shake the skirts of their high-waisted gowns and whirl and jitter their arms around, occasionally clasping their hands in prayer. Scolding impotently, they look like hens scratching up dust.

The women wield James Meyer's ingenious costumes in numerous ways, turning shawls into head coverings and making pieces of cloth into contested items and symbols of connection or rejection. There are no tender moments between Separovitch and Simpson. Sally's baby—and her future—are issues in the Jefferson family. Separovitch takes the shabby carriage and upends it in the fancy one, while Kohlmyer throws her arms around and rattles both carriages fiercely. In one amazing moment, she takes a stance and spreads her skirts wide. The three other women, hidden behind her, sit and stick their feet forward so she appears multi-legged, like a spider.

In the end, as Simpson dances big and despairing and the trumpet in Darren Johnston's score cries out, all the women shudder and hiss at her. Kohlmyer says, biting out every word, "If I keep you, I may keep your daughter too." Simpson walks to the perambulator and shakes it as the lights fade. It's as if she's trying to shake centuries of servitude and prejudice away.

Robert Moses' Kin, with its provocative choreography and excellent dancers (including Todd Eckert and Dwayne Worthington), has yet to play New York. It's about time.

 
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