“When I’m through burying children, who will bury me?”
That’s the mournful chant that opens the latest offering from Robert Moses’ Kin. Titled Trick Bags/Trap Doors/Painted Corners, the three-part, evening-length collaboration between choreographer Robert Moses and guest choreographers Terence Marling and Latanya d. Tigner is billed as a reflection on the “cultural time bombs” created when children are raised to “buy into the ideas of colorblindness and meritocracy.”
Even without that precise and chilling backgrounder, the provocative score clearly situates the work in the divisive political landscape of today’s America. Yet the fabric of the triptych is woven so loosely that it doesn’t entirely hang together. The professed theme of raising children in an insidiously racist environment seems to give way to mysterious yet absorbing rituals of community.
Moses choreographs the opening section of the triptych to a score crafted by recording artist/drummer PC Muñoz. It features parts of the soundtrack from The New York Times mini-documentary A Conversation with Black Women on Race and a glorious, pulsating song tinged with gospel, Latin American and West African rhythms titled “DIRT," performed by the Oakland-based a cappella ensemble SoVoSó.
Moses does not use movement to reenact the spoken narrative elements in the soundtrack that touch on violence, lynchings, and subtler acts of racism. Instead, the choreographer punctuates them with finely drawn anguish, irony and humor.
In the bare-bones black box of the intimate Dance Mission Theater, six Robert Moses’ Kin dancers and 17 guest performers clad in simple white street wear undertake brief solos, duos and trios, emerging from a melee of bodies reminiscent of busy city streets and buzzing information highways. In one electrifying sequence, dancer Dazaun Soleyn twists and hurtles through a crowd of people oblivious to his suffering.
In the second section of the triptych, Marling enlists Dutch baroque composer Johannes Schenck, Japanese new age music, and Moondog’s brash symphonic "Theme" to color a somewhat trite spoken-word recording about those whom society brands outsiders.
In the third and closing section, Tigner dispenses with a soundscape altogether; the dancers’ syncopated footfalls and occasional chanting provide the only accompaniment to her choreography, which suggests a stalwart struggle against invisible forces of oppression.
As a whole, the work seems to champion the individual and paint the resilience of a community. The juicy, poetic dance language – remarkably unified between the three choreographers – feels innate to each of the performers, while also amplifying and exalting the differences between them. The wide range of physiques and skin tones in this seemingly tight-knit company make a powerful statement of inclusivity. With its hints of martial arts, ballet, folk and street dance, the choreography defies tidy classification. The individual dancers defy classification, too.
A quality they all share is a sense of living on a knife edge: the dancers make split-second shifts from boxing jabs to sweeping lyrical gestures; they whirl on a dime, shudder and quake, and negotiate turf issues with wordless wit and diplomacy. They offer pop-up shelters for each other within the curves of an outstretched limb or an arched back, and execute bodily contact with grave, tender precision.
One of the most arresting sequences happens at the close of Moses’ section. As the music dies down, the commanding dancer Jill Breckenridge continues to hold court with the rest of the ensemble at her feet. Her magnificent solo is both a lament and a call to arms. Breckenridge pitches forward daringly and flicks one leg behind her, as if to warn any enemies lurking on the perimeter not to mess with her tribe.
Robert Moses' Kin in 'Trick Bags/Trap Doors/Painted Corners' runs for a final weekend from Friday, May 19, to Sunday, May 21, at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. See here for more information.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED