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Not so random beauty: Robert Moses’ Kin.

Roughly Formal
By Mae G. Banner

Robert Moses’ Kin
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 31

The costs of touring being what they are, it’s rare that we in New York get to see a dance company from the West Coast—companies like Robert Moses’ Kin, who performed Moses’ unadorned choreography last week at the Jacob’s Pillow Duke Studio Theatre.

The Duke looks like a big high school gym with chairs on risers that ascend from a plain dance floor. Moses’ group fits the setting. Moses keeps his choreography real: thrift shop costumes, no special effects, lots of ordinary gestures mixed in with gym-class drills or boxing moves.

The 11 dancers, including Moses, range from teen-gymnast petite to basketball-player tall. They are a multicultural group, such as you would see on any city street, but, maybe more so in San Francisco, where Moses founded his company in 1995.

It took me a while to find the patterns within the seemingly random movement in the three dances I saw: Biography (2003), The Soft Sweet Smell of Firm Warm Things (2003) and Lucifer’s Prance (2000). Pattern exists, but polish is eschewed.

In Biography, barefoot dancers walk, cross, meet and connect in contact improv pairings. Then, suddenly, they all move at once, but, still, they do so as individuals, not a formal corps.

Biography is done to recorded words, not music. I recognized James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, heard speaking with an interviewer about the condition of the black writer in the 1960s. The first gripping statement is Baldwin’s: “To be a Negro in America is to be in a state of constant rage.”

Do we focus on the words, which are demanding, or the dance? Gradually, I let go of the words and began to see extreme shapes, such as men lifting women and then letting them down onto their feet and elbows. Pressed to the limit, the five women sank luxuriously onto a hip, lying full length like seductresses as the men danced before them.

Pairs of men changed places, taking turns to stroke each other’s thighs erotically. One black man sat alone, center stage, his head bowed, his wrists crossed. The other dancers kept their distance from him. At this point, I felt the words and movement meet. The black artist is outside American life, but is central to it.

The Soft Sweet Smell, danced in tank tops and street pants, sets two slow and flowing dancers against two fast and jerky movers, doing gym-like stretches and winding arms to repetitive music by Daniel Denis and Jonathan Norton that seems to be a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments.

Moses likes arms. He sets them freewheeling in solos, sparring or grappling in duets. He also likes insinuating, borderline porn gestures, such as a dancer grabbing another at the crotch, or, in this dance, raising one’s cupped fingers to one’s nose and sniffing. In one duet, the male pulls his partner to him, then pushes her away. When she backs offstage, he flings his hands up in a “good riddance” gesture. Another couple does a tangolike dance that ends with a kiss in the dark.

Lucifer, to music of Philip Glass, has a hidden pattern within a ragged frame. A tall white man bears a stiff, slanted woman before him, like a plaster saint, carrying her offstage. Later, a tall black man carries her on again, still frozen. Meanwhile, other women dancers in wine-colored velvet skirts, slit up each leg, dance a rippling passage with arrowy or thrusting arms.

This is the program’s most formally composed-looking dance, incorporating vigorous lifts and jumps. The movement is dramatic, extreme, and decidedly not pretty. A sequence of unison gym floor kicks and hunches, as if the dancers were shivering before their god, worked up to a group frenzy and a final upside down lift in darkness.

Dance During Wartime

Batsheva Dance Company
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 31

The dances of the Israeli company Batsheva reflect the contradictions of life in Israel. Sometimes, the movement is vigorous, passionate, space-devouring. Yet, the dancers can appear alienated, focused on themselves, unable to make contact. Then, trumping all that, the dancers suddenly erupt into circusy wildness or pure camp.

What begins as an audacious night of cabaret dancing turns into a different kind of frenzy as a woman yells, “Moshe!” Where is he? Out for a smoke? Caught in an ambush? We don’t know.

Batsheva, returning to Jacob’s Pillow after a nine-year absence, danced a transitional program. Longtime director- choreographer Ohad Naharin has passed the baton to dancer-choreographer Sharon Eyal. She is now associate artistic director of the 16-member company, while Naharin continues as house choreographer.

As if to mark this change, the evening opened with excerpts from Eyal’s new ensemble dance, Love (2003), being shown for the first time outside Israel, and closed with DecaDance, a choppy mix of bits from seven Naharin dances spanning the period from 1985 to 2001.

You want contradictions? You got ’em. But, more about DecaDance later.

Israeli-born Eyal has been dancing with Batsheva for more than 10 years and choreographing for the past two years. Love, a work for 13 dancers to an international collage of pop music (Japanese, French, Hebrew, British) is smooth, chic, tough and altogether beautiful.

The dancers are expressionless, sleek, alienated. Their androgynous costumes are black turtlenecks and shiny black briefs, designed to erase individual differences, yet, paradoxically, to enhance them. Someone lifts and lowers a shoulder, repeatedly. Someone moves forward aggressively, thrusting out the pelvis.

One couple gets together to dance cheek to cheek, but both face forward as if staring into a mirror to see if they look good together. Mostly, each dancer repeats her/his own phrase—stiff arms, exaggerated tiptoeing, straight-up jumps—as they travel around the stage. A couple may form, but touching is mostly avoided.

A sad ballad sets a final tender scene in which, one by one, five women come forward, each to dance her own jerky, stretchy, body-involving phrase. As each woman finishes, she walks to the side to watch the next dancer’s solo with quiet intensity. This is the first time any of the dancers have focused on another person. This understanding of shared loss accumulates until the last dancer’s body has spoken. The women walk into the wings, leaving an empty stage. Only then do we realize that the men, gone before, never did come back.

Now, for something completely—and relentlessly—different. DecaDance can be seen as a retrospective of Naharin’s work in all its wild variety. Or, it can be seen as a lazy choreographer’s way of not bothering to make a new dance for this tour. Maybe we should take Naharin at his word. He says in the program notes that he wishes his biography to read: Nothing is Permanent.

The excerpts ranged from the accusatory Naharin’s Virus (2001) in which a line of dancers in black tights and white unitards that cover even their hands come to the very edge of the stage, where they kick and flail their arms and shake their fists at us, to the unbound cabaret dancing of Moshe (1999), in which the group ultimately builds a human tower and seems to triumph until one dancer falls from the middle.

Black Milk (1985) is a powerful male initiation dance. A lone man encounters four men in wide wrapped pants, who pass along a metal bucket. Each of the four thrusts his hands in the bucket and smears black paint (war paint?) over his face and bare chest. The first man resists, but finally joins in the ritual.

They master the space with huge movements, running, flying, swerving, rolling. A man goes down and another protects him, leaning over him in a pieta stance or gently lying on top of him.

Into the solemnity of this scene, a horrible she-devil on stilts marches, wielding a six-foot-tall pitchfork topped by a microphone. Adjusting her black feather boa, she opens her monstrous red mouth and lip-syncs to Yma Sumac. This is probably supposed to be funny. I found it horrifying.

We got real comic relief in Zachacha (1998), the big audience-participation number. You know the drill: The house lights come full on. The dancers, in black Hassid-style suits with smashed fedoras, troll the audience for likely partners who will sway with them onstage to the lounge-lizard crooning of Dean Martin. This is hilarious. Also, it makes us all one family. People rush to take pictures of their dancing friends, who are suddenly stars. Everyone is clapping and laughing. Everything is loose. Then, after a whole lot of boogying and cha-cha-cha, all the Batsheva dancers fall flat on their backs and somehow, one elderly woman (it’s always a game elderly woman) is left standing center stage, bathed in a bright spotlight. She glows. She mugs for the audience. Head high, she leaves the stage and a follow-spot hugs her all the way back to her seat.

—Mae G. Banner


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