Choreographer gives rich black oral tradition new an expression

SAN FRANCISCO _ Dance is a silent language. It speaks in a vocabulary of gestures and footwork that at once interprets music and communicates the prose of movement.

To have dance tell the story of storytelling, though, seems a contrary notion. And it’s certainly ambitious, which explains why Robert Moses had to make “Word of Mouth” into a full-length piece.

The three-part program, which celebrates Black History Month, takes on the rich but jeopardized history of black oral tradition. The work seeks to show how changes that have happened in language and culture may be endangering the status and relevance of storytelling in the black community.

“Dance is a nonverbal form, (but) what dance has the ability to do is to take something huge and shrink it down to its microcosm,” Moses explains.

The slender choreographer has taken a break from rehearsals at his studio in the San Francisco Dance Center. It’s the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, yet working on “Word of Mouth” seems an appropriate way to be spending it. Besides, the world premiere is only days away, and the artistic director has to torment his dancers by changing yet another segment in the 70-plus minute production.

Considering the program is his first evening-length piece, the 39-year-old shows remarkable cheerfulness, even as he explains his mammoth undertaking.

To some, the easier route perhaps would have been to follow at least the chronology of music. That, he laughs, “would have been a 12-day piece.”

The program opens to a traditional railroad song, to which dancers move in a confusion of dynamic motions against a blank screen. Individual characters and the relationships among them begin to emerge from the twisting bodies, like colliding words_emerging and joining together.

“We begin to see for the first time,” Moses explains, “the sense of these people.”

“Word of Mouth” pieces together a kaleidoscope of musical styles, from basic calls and hollers to sophisticated jazz to hip-hop riffs. Rather than a chronology of musical styles, the set is broken into individual themes, with names like “Babble,” “Evolve, “Migration,” “Assimilation,” “Miscegenation” _ deceptively brief, one-word titles that hint at the chaos, joy and controversy brimming in each subject.

This thematic approach draws from his research in oral histories, illustrated by old photographs and film footage.

Still, Moses admits to the inherent paradox of using movement to describe the loss of words and recounts his decision to use one particularly compelling interview of a former slave who was asked if he believed in ghosts.

“”Well, of course I believe in ghosts ,”” the slave had explained. ‘I’ve been ridden by them.’ What’s it like to be ridden by a ghost? It’s quite startling.”

From this story, Moses distilled the mood and played with the various ways in which one is plagued by spirits, like “waking up in a cold sweat and feeling that something is in control of your life, particularly (what that was like) for people who didn’t have control of their own language.”

One challenge is conveying these moments without tripping into clichis, such as turning one’s back to indicate trouble communicating, or doing the dance while encumbered by a chain to demonstrate the arrival from Africa.

“The hardest thing is clarity, going from the spoken word or written word that’s meant to be spoken,” Moses says.

Taking on subjects like the compromised status of black oral tradition is the reason that Moses founded his own company, Robert Moses Kin, in 1994.

Prior to that, the acclaimed choreographer and dancer performed with companies such as ODC/San Francisco, Twyla Tharp Dance, American Ballet Theatre, Long Beach Ballet, Walt Disney World Productions and Gloria Newman Dance Theater.

In addition to his own company, he continues to produce a prodigious number of works for other companies including the Oakland Ballet, Lawrence Pech Dance Company, and the Transitions Dance Company of the Laban Center in London, among others. His schedule also accommodates a lecturing position at Stanford University as well as stints at venues such as UC Berkeley, American College Dance Festival and the San Francisco Dance Center.

Despite this prolific output, Moses formed his own company to ground his dance in a black aesthetic, touching upon social issues as well as pure motion.

“Word of Mouth” has come together remarkably quickly, with the physical work beginning just six months ago.

Its inception, however, began a long time ago, in part based on a conversation he had with his sister, Renee, about four years ago. Renee had gradually taken on an active role as the family historian, which included making regular pilgrimages to visit the East Coast relatives.

Moses began thinking of the distance of geography and time that dissolved his family’s once-tight kinship. The youngest of four children _ some 20 years separate him and his eldest sister, Patricia _ he is the only son and a late addition to the family. His father died when he was 3 years old, and his mother died when he was 16.

Still, he grew up surrounded by relatives.

“My generation is the last generation to be sort of a closed family,” Moses explains. “All my uncles and cousins and aunts lived in Philadelphia. My grandparents on both sides lived in (New) Jersey.”

Fourth of July meant massive clan gatherings at his maternal grandparents’ Jersey farm. Throughout the year, cousins played together when their parents paid regular visits to one another.

“People used to have time. When people got together, you didn’t sit down and watch TV as much,” Moses recounts.

From stocking shelves in the corner family grocery below the flat where they lived, Moses got to know the stories of the people from his street.

There was “Pop,” who pestered his mother for a job and got one, even though she knew he stole petty items. His engagement ended when a young Moses caught the bold clerk walking out with a jacket stuffed full of food.

Another set of neighbors periodically stole their car (apparently the easiest one to break into on the block) for days at a time. His mother would see them driving around in it, until one day she locked herself and the men in the store to confront them. They never stole the car after that.

This intimate circle broke after his mother died. Moses moved across country to be with his eldest sister in California. The family is still back East, but the relationship has diminished. “I lose some of the connection, I lose some of that history, I lose that voice,” says Moses.

The choreographer did not plumb the stories of his childhood for “Word of Mouth.” Instead, the sense of loss echoes in his piece, the loss that is part of a larger story that plays itself out in the history of black America, particularly within the heritage of oral tradition.

Moses hears that in music, especially “pop songs that really owe a lot of homage to African-American history.

“A lot of the current stuff, I don’t care for,” Moses continues. “There’s no sense of grounding in history.” He gives the example of George Clinton’s 1978 funk song, “One Nation Under a Groove.” It begins with the lyrics, “So wide can’t get around it/So low you can’t get under it/So high you can’t get over it.”

Ice Cube sampled those words, which came from a spiritual.

“The little bit of that song is over 100 years old. Do you know the history behind the little bit of that song?” Moses asks rhetorically. Instead, the meaning degrades and what was once an expression of spiritual yearning becomes “nonsense lyrics.”

“The history has been discounted because it’s confused,” he says.

In the past 30 years, desegregation has both freed African-Americans to move into the mainstream and dissolved some communal and vernacular bonds. Ironically, today’s commercialization of some elements of “black culture” has removed blacks even further from the experiences that they represent.

The act of vanishing, even if it involves something as abstract as language, does contain within itself an animated force.

“Loss is not just about being gone, it’s the action of losing something,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy and effort trying to hold onto something dropping off your hand.”

That defines the tone of “Word of Mouth,” the moment of still grasping something that has begun to fall apart.

“It’s really not gone, It’s still there, which is quite heartening, because when I started, I thought, ‘I really don’t know what has happened to this stuff.’

“It’s still there,” Moses says. “If you listen for it, it’s there. It is there.”



What: “Word of Mouth”

Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 14-16; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 17

How much: $15/$18.50/$22.50

Call: 415-345-7575,


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