February 19, 2003

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Jimmy's blues
Robert Moses premieres a Baldwin-inspired work.

By Rita Felciano

THESE DAYS SOME of the Bay Area's most striking dancers perform with the eight-year-old Robert Moses' Kin Dance Company. They are an even dozen (including one apprentice), in addition to Moses, who still dances circles around everyone. The women are technically stronger than the men; as a group they devour Moses's lush choreography with an almost voracious appetite. Amy Foley, Bliss Kohlmyer, and Tristan Ching couldn't be more different, yet they are equally radiant, challenged by choreography that calls on their minds as well as on their muscles.

Moses frequently choreographs overlapping but disparate unisons for two. It allows him to fill the stage – even while using as few as six dancers – with churning masses of energy that look like time-lapse storm clouds. At the same time, the layering of movement in small groups highlights individuality. It's a real kicker, for instance, to see tiny but robust Ching tear through a phrase in tandem with the lanky, towering Ramon Ramos Alayo. They may be doing the same kick-slide-turn combination, but the nuances of their attacks and finishes are distinct.

The opening night (Feb. 12, Cowell Theater) of Moses's yearly two-week season brought a mixed program featuring two world premieres and works from the recent repertoire. (They'll show last year's full-evening Word of Mouth this coming weekend). A Biography of Baldwin: Part I, a new work, was an intriguing juxtaposition of the specificity of language with the abstraction of movement. As a sound score for this portrait, Moses used a taped conversation between James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya, and Alfred Kazin from 1961. Only the casual use of the word "negro" dated the discussion; much of the content could have been recorded today.

Moses aligned his dancers, dressed in black pants and white tops, in a L-shaped formation, and gradually, as if they were on a turntable, moved them to the other side of the stage until they looked back at their former positions. Loose-limbed but intensely charged, the dancers (one by one or sometimes in small groups) stepped into the center space for a momentary "conversation" – a touch, a turn, a swinging leg. Only a few hints at actual biography emerged: a nuzzling duet on the ground, an outsider pacing. Direct references to the taped conversation seemed almost accidental. At one point bodies looked like they were being put to rest, right before Hansberry referred to the "negro writer as a corpse."

The other world premiere, The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things, actually seemed to contradict its title. Set to a soft though insistent beat that gradually grew to a loud boom, the piece spoke of fragmentation and discontinuity, sending dancers into restless, flaring alignments from which they either recoiled or were repelled. Carlos Gonzalez tried to find his way through what looked to him like a maze. (Given the length of the program, Moses's three-solo suite – two of his own, one by Alonzo King – could have been cut. Though well performed, they were remarkably similar to one another.)

Moses revived 1997's Doscongio, initially choreographed for Robert Henry Johnson and last performed by Jose Comoda, for the tall and articulated Kohlmyer. A fast and precise dynamo of a mover, she was clearly buoyed by the Chopin music (excerpts from Sonata op. 65). Her lovely fluttering fingers even infused the awkward music visualizations with charm. The two quartets (Blood in Time and Three Quartets for Four and the Second Is Two) explored rather disparate worlds. Blood, for which Moses narrated reminiscences of his childhood, exhibited a sculptural quality – individual moments frozen as if captured by a camera. The choreographer seemed both participant in and observer of these images; a pair of duets with emotionally different trajectories (but danced simultaneously) looked particularly good. Three Quartets played around with baroque dance patterns and featured an exuberant Ching, whose dancing breezed through the music's formal patterns.

The evening opened with Lucifer's Prance (2000). Set to excerpts from the opera Akhnaten, by Philip Glass, the music had all the subtlety of Carmina Burana, though Moses used it effectively. The work's swirling, roiling energy every once in a while gave way to formal processions and measured entries, as if trying to recapture some of the static formality of the opening's sculptural formations. Strong images – of the crucifixion, of boxing partners, of prayerful poses, of the pietà – periodically emerged, only to be sucked back into the billowing mass of movement.

Robert Moses' Kin Dance Company perform through Sun/23. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 8 p.m., Cowell Theater, Marina at Buchanan, S.F. $18.50-$24.50. (415) 345-7575.