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Making a point: Robert Moses’ Kin.

The Politics of Dance

By Mae G. Banner

Robert Moses’ Kin

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 16

Robert Moses has something to say. Dancing with his 10-member company, Robert Moses’ Kin last week at Jacob’s Pillow, he used a kit-bag of media, especially the spoken word, to underscore his dance messages.

Moses’ theatricality was most elaborate in The President’s Daughter (2005), inspired (incited?) by the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and by the recent disclosure of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s similar non-consensual affair with a black woman.

The choreographer presented the white man’s power and arrogance, white women’s recriminations and anger, and the abused black woman’s range of responses through a series of quick vignettes, tableaus, and blackouts, all fleshed out with period costumes (Empire waist dresses for the women), voice-over letters and interviews surrounding the Jefferson-Hemings affair, and a commissioned jazz score by Darren Johnston. The chief prop was a white wicker baby carriage, set upstage and ignored until the final moments of the dance.

In separate vignettes, the tall Jefferson character insisted, through forceful moves addressed to his wife, that he would have a concubine if he chose. With Hemings, his force amounted to rape. She tried unsuccessfully to fight him off. The wife threw castoff clothes on the floor for Hemings to pick up, but she let them lie.

A four-woman chorus joined in vocal condemnation of the black woman, siding with the aggrieved wife. Their chant followed the notes of the children’s counting-out rhyme, “Eeny meeny miney mo,” with its familiar melody to, “My mother told me to choose the very best one . . .”

The Hemings figure danced a wild and prayerful solo with a cascading series of jumps, turns and falls, then walked deliberately to put her small bundle (her baby) into the master’s white wicker carriage. She shook the carriage—and, so, she shook the world.

The President’s Daughter is a powerful piece on a reality that shaped this country and that we try, but cannot hide. I wanted the dance to be longer, to tell us more.

The San Francisco-based company, founded in 1995, is a sinewy group that combines modern dance movement with elements of jazz and lots of athletic power. In Cause, they danced mutual hostility to a voice-over accompaniment of poems by Youth Speaks, a local group. There were knee-jabs, upper-cuts, karate chops and general mix-ups, the women as tough as the men. A dancer would extend a hand and the gesture would be categorically rejected. The dance ended in a slow-motion grappling that promised no resolution.

Similarly, Speaking Ill of the Dead (2006) had women stepping over the fallen bodies of their men killed in a senseless war. The voice-over repeated, “We regret to inform you . . .” and the women refused to acknowledge their loss. As the men crumpled and the women stepped away, the announcements broadened: “We regret to inform you of the loss of your husband . . . your brother . . . your lover . . .” and, finally, the sucker-punch, “the loss of your liberty.” The entire audience let out a breath, “Huunhh!” with one voice.

Moses performed a profound solo, Doscongio, (1998) to music of Chopin. In a charcoal-gray business suit and rosy red shirt, he created a full-bodied character in whom pressures and aspirations warred. We needed no voiceovers to understand the balletic stretch that became a bent back, burdened, with hands clasped behind; or the repetitions of smooth, jazzy moves that hardened into heavy-laden downward thrusts.

With his back turned to us, Moses raised an arm high overhead at a jaunty angle, then let his arm sink toward the ground, fingers fluttering all the way down. His whole body aspired to be beautiful, but was propelled into agonized spins, a thumping slap to the chest, and a head that shuddered. He put out his hands as if to ward off attack as he stepped away with bulky grace—so much life pressed into so little space.

Liquid Gold

Tania Perez-Salas Compania de Danza

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 16

The recent Metamorphoses at Capital Repertory Theatre thrilled and calmed audiences with the power of water as a dramatic medium. At Jacob’s Pillow last week, Mexican choreographer Tania Perez-Salas made water dance under light, made it arc, sparkle and spray, freeing the audience as it freed the dancers to leap, splash and plunge, all in formal patterns, their bodies shining and slippery as eels.

The dance, Waters of Forgetfulness (1998) was part of Perez-Salas’ Compania de Danza’s Pillow debut. Like all her dances, it was assertively theatrical, extending the language of the body through music and special effects. (The other dances, Hours (2001) and Anabiosis (2000) used such devices as three women’s bodies sharing one enormous textured floor-length skirt, fragments of nude bodies set in a vertical frame that looked like a film strip, huge red velvet curtains that buried the dancers, and lots of dry ice fog. All imparted a larger-than-life expressiveness and an air of impenetrable mystery.)

Waters was glorious. Women arose from the stage-wide pool glistening, as if emerging from a cocoon. Dancers did yoga moves to East Indian chants, flinging their arms and legs, arching their backs. The water shone and sounded, sometimes like thunder. The piece ended with a sudden fall of beach sand, a curtain of brown grains that masked the dancers.

A note: Later that afternoon, I saw the Waters costumes hanging to dry on a clothesline behind the theater. It was a lovely happenstance that reconnected the surreal with the human quality of dance.

—Mae G.Banner

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