Dancer-choreographer Robert Moses would prefer that audiences take pleasure in the sheer joy of watching movement on stage rather than probe his work to find the "right" meaning. And he doesn't call his work "modern dance."
Instead, his work is a mĂ©lange that includes classical ballet, spoken word, performance art and movement from African-American music and rock, jazz, Indian stick dancing and ballroom. He also takes inspiration from other sources, from song to literature to broadcast news. But this is not improv. Everything is well choreographed, and his work is balletic, eclectic and often athletic.
"I make dance. I'm an artist who works primarily through movement," says Moses, founder of the Robert Moses' Kin dance company in San Francisco and Stanford faculty member.
"The problem with modern dance or contemporary dance is that you kind of feel that in order to get anything out of it or any pleasure out of it, you have to understand it in a particular way. I'm not necessarily there. If you want to come with that kind of mind, fine. But that doesn't exclude you from coming and just enjoying and getting pleasure out of it. There is a pleasure in just watching people move."
Robert Moses' Kin will perform on Dec. 8, at Stanford Memorial Auditorium. Under the aegis of Stanford Lively Arts, the program includes the world premiere of "Jokes Like That Can Get You Killed," commissioned by a Stanford grant.
Other works are "Speaking Ill of the Dead," an antiwar meditation set to the music of the a cappella group SoVoSo, and "Lucifer's Prance," set to music from Philip Glass' opera "Akhnaten."
A free, informal program, open to an audience of 200, is slated for Dec. 7 at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View.
While commuting to his San Francisco studio from Stanford, where he is artist-in-residence, lecturer and choreographer, Moses talks about his art, his vision and his life, which is often hectic. On Tuesdays, he commutes back and forth twice from the city to Stanford, where he also directs the Committee on Black Performing Arts at Stanford University.
In addition to performing in San Francisco and the Bay Area, Robert Moses' Kin has toured throughout the nation, performing at New York City Center's Fall for Dance Festival, Jacob's Pillow and the Maine Festival, among others.
This particular Thursday, Moses was getting ready for the Stanford performance. It was a lighter day, with only one round-trip commute in his white Mazda. He apologizes for the sand and other traces of child occupancy. In the back is a car seat. He and his wife, dancer Mary Carbonara, are parents of a 2-year-old girl and a son is on the way. Carbonara, who has her own company, is also a member of San Francisco's Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and was formerly with Robert Moses' Kin.
It is unusual for professional dancers to be married to one another but there's nothing usual about Moses, or his odyssey. Growing up in North Philadelphia, where his mother had a mom-and-pop grocery, he had never considered becoming a dancer, although "when I was a child, my mother saw something artistic in me." He was in accelerated classes and played the keyboard.
But his mother died when he was 16 and Moses moved to the West Coast to be with his sister's family, completing his last year of high school in Long Beach, where he later earned his degree.
He had studied drama and other artistic disciplines. "I wound up in dance because it was the thing I could speak most readily through."
Moses danced with the Long Beach Ballet, Twyla Tharp Dance and briefly with the American Ballet Theatre before starting his own company in 1995, the year he came to Stanford as a lecturer and curator of dance programming.
"I didn't want to be a classical ballet dancer but I could do all of that stuff ... once upon a time," he says. "I began the way a lot of people do, tasting a lot of things -- Afro-Haitian, tap, ballet, jazz, Indian," he adds, noting that his work gradually evolved into something more personal, becoming a vehicle for examining larger issues.
"What's unique about Robert's work would be it's a very unusual, very rigorous hybrid between postmodern dance and African-American political content," says Stanford associate professor and dance historian Janice Ross. "He explores social issues around race and gender fused with an African-American artistic lens."
Outside the studio, a couple of dancers sit on the floor, one of them practicing unusual arm, hand and head movements, which she utilizes in "Jokes Like That Can Get You Killed." Inside, pictures of Moses' child flash on a small computer screen as he turns on his audio equipment and begins rehearsal. Nine dancers of varying ethnicities and heights plunge into the piece.
"Jokes" addresses language and how it is used, appropriately and otherwise. Along with music and varying sounds, from sexual sighs to broadcast clips, the work integrates movement and chant, interspersed with jokes, not necessarily lethal. The piece was developed with a creative team that includes John Rickford, David Worm, Austin Forbord, Mary Domenico and David Elliott.
The audio captures George Bush intoning, "Changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure," followed by comedian Wanda Sykes quipping, "If you don't believe in same-sex marriage, then don't marry somebody of the same sex." Also included is the voice of TV bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman, who used racial slurs in a private phone conversation with his son, objecting to his black girlfriend. His words reverberate into an echo. Other audio clips broadcast stereotypes about African-Americans, Italians, women, you name it.
Movement reflects words, as the dancers become actors and reactors. During the rehearsal, Todd Eckert partners with Amy Foley, who steps into a pair of high heels as the audio blares sexist remarks. Others engage in various formations; partnering, moving as threesomes or crossing the floor in slow motion, one by one.
The work, Moses says, is about "crossing the line," locating that often invisible line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, within a cultural group and outside it. "In Stanford talk, it's essentially about transgressive language and how it's used humorously, in context, to get meaning across. That's Stanford talk."
He laughs, and translates: "people saying things in context that they shouldn't necessarily -- or should they?" He points to the gaffes of Michael Richards, Don Imus and Chapman.
Because that work and others will spur questions, Moses will hold a discussion following the Stanford performance.
For the dancers, one of the challenges of working among "Kin" is "partnering up with different people," says Eckert, who has been with the company for seven years and began dancing in college. "We're clearly establishing relationships between people, taking on the challenges of movement."
Foley, who studied both modern dance and ballet for 22 years, has been with the company since 1999.
What she particularly likes about Moses is that he choreographs with his dancers in mind, and he chooses dancers of various sizes. Unlike many professional dancers, Foley is short.
"You don't have to have a particular body type to dance and dance well. The company is called Robert Moses' Kin," she says, emphasizing the word "Kin."
"Robert really hires the individual, the individual person," Foley adds, noting that she "doesn't want to be a robot."
"We're not just painting a picture. The picture has to be 3-D. We're drawing on our own experiences. Our experiences inform the work, (but) he's definitely the director."
Who: Robert Moses' Kin dance company.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8.
Cost: $16-$40 general; $8-$20 for Stanford students. Discounts available for groups and other students.
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.
Also planned is a free program at the Community School of Music and Arts, 230 San Antonio Circle, Mountain View, 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7. Audience limited to 200 on a first-come basis. Info: 650-917-6800 or http://www.arts4all.org .