I guess it's good news that I am still turning corners I didn't know I could turn."




An Interview with Robert Moses,
Artistic Director, Robert Moses' KIN
June, 2002

By Toba Singer


My interview with Robert Moses took place at the counter of a noisy Starbucks down the block from where he was auditioning dancers for Robert Moses' KIN Dance Company's upcoming season. The ambient noise was more powerful than the new, but uncooperative tape recorder batteries I had bought earlier in the day at Best Buy. We struggled to have our conversation above the noise, with me scribbling in speedwriting. Several people who had seen KIN's Word of Mouth earlier in the spring at the Cowell Theater, had shared with me their sense that the company had "turned a corner," and reached a "new level." I asked Mr. Moses what he thought people meant by those words.

"I never know what people mean when they say that. I've heard it a number of times. I guess it has to do with where people do or do not expect you to go, or what they expect your abilities to be or not to be. I had the same experience when I made Supplicant, and Lucifer. I guess it's good news that I am still turning corners I didn't know I could turn. People have expectations when they say things like that. They don't know what to make of it when you confound their expectations pleasantly. I guess they give you credit for that.

"For example, if people see work about The Angry Black Man, they expect to see it again and again. But sometimes I'm romantic, and they are surprised to see that coming from me." As he seemed to consider all the possible ramifications, he added, "Of course, you want the level of clarity to increase in your later work; you always want to be more articulate. You want to communicate with a greater specificity. But value-laden words like 'better' are sometimes hard to hear. They can have the effect of diminishing your past work, and your past experience."

Robert Moses' KIN is adopting a new, more formal structure for the company. I asked Mr. Moses how he sees that new structure affecting the company, and helping the future work of KIN.

"I want to get out of my own way. Robert Moses is a dancer, a choreographer and a teacher. That's who I am. I am perceived as having a company, doing a few things with some people, including my wife [dancer Mary Carbonara]. We have to get out beyond that [narrow] conception of the company, but I'm not a businessman, I'm not a manager. I've been doing those things, but there are people who can move us forward, who have experience in ways that count."

The needs of the dancers are a chief concern for Mr. Moses: "We need somebody who will help us to be able to help the dancers in ways that I simply don't know how to accomplish. We need to put a mechanism in place that gets us past continually having to reinvent the wheel. If I am going to be an effective artistic director, I have to step away from those kinds of responsibilities that take time away from artistry and creative work. While I can't completely disconnect from the administrative life of the company, I do need to create space to do my work."

With a number of companies and their artists feeling constrained by their administrative units, I asked what kind of models might best suit Robert Moses' KIN.

"There are a number of administrative models that exist. I'm not sure yet which will work best for KIN. ODC-San Francisco has a three-pronged existence focused on its school, the building as a performance and exhibition space, and the company itself. That model works well for ODC. Lines Ballet Company is more driven by its school. [The Lines building location has served as the central San Francisco studio space for open classes in a variety of dance disciplines.] Joe [Goode] and Margie [Margaret Jenkins] have cut their overhead by not having a building, and by utilizing grants and residencies to obtain space. San Francisco Ballet practically has a corporate structure. Twyla [Tharp] and Ralph [Lemon] have been dumping their companies because it has required spending too much time in the office, something you want to be wary of. In a capitalist system, financial success depends on money coming in. When you have a dance company, all the revenue goes out. You have to devise ways to get money coming into the company."

We shifted into a discussion about the link between teaching and building a company. About this, Mr. Moses said: "They are two very different things. Teaching a technique class gives your students solid grounding to apply outside the class itself, in applications much broader than the class. That's why ballet works so well to train dancers. It is a beautiful system with broad application. Choreography is a different matter. In creating dance, it is not great if your work develops on a linear basis. You have to allow it to go where it wants to go. Your work is not a system in the way that teaching technique is a system. Dance is about imagery. It is a form of expression that is not linear in the way that music or literature is. We must stop treating dance as if it were music or literature, because while it sometimes tells a linear story, it reaches people in a different kind of way. From that point of view, you sometimes have to step away from the technical aspects, or even the idea. Sometimes you just need to go left because the dance tells you that's the right thing to do. The temptation is to systematize dance. To the extent that dance is a system, it has to be serving the image, or the motion, and not the other way around."

Material publicizing the company explains that part of Robert Moses' intention in founding KIN was to begin a company that could give expression to the African-American experience. I asked where in that process the company is at this juncture. "One of the things I have learned is that it is very difficult to give expression to the African-American experience, in general. That might sound like a cop-out," Moses said, with a wry laugh, "but it's not."

"You start out thinking: 'I'm going to talk about the Black experience,' but if you're honest, you realize that there are A FEW Black experiences. There's the Black under class. There's the Black middle class. There's the Black female experience, the Black male experience, the Black misogynist (expected), and the Black not-misogynist (unexpected). Really, there are a lot of things. We have defined ourselves like everyone else on earth by what holds us together. If I did material only about my roots, I would end up doing the hundredth piece about my roots. It would become boring, and I wouldn't have addressed the ways in which the Black middle class is alienated because it is disconnected from the working class, or the relationships between male and female, or the stories that aren't told.

"There's the question, 'What is it about your core experience that makes it possible to define yourself in relationship to what you struggle against?' You don't get to tell me I don't exist because you want me to define myself in relationship to conflict, in a binary kind of way. We must define ourselves in relationship to what is distinctly ours, with the understanding that nobody has accomplished anything alone."

As an aside, he added, "The Bible is a good example of this: The Bible is the Word of God interpreted by a group of men. The stories in the Bible grew out of the experience of a core of people defining itself as moving toward or away from a group of ideas, but then it was interpreted and reconstructed by generations of people, from different historical experiences, and it became something different. You are defined by motion toward or away from whatever is pushing or pulling you. I am an African man living in America, not Africa; but trying to understand my roots. I am Black. I am a Black man whose sub-headings reflect a belief system developed in relationship to my experience on this continent, in the United States of America."

"I was in Minneapolis recently, where some Africans are having problems with American Blacks. They are saying things like 'They're lazy, they're shiftless.' Well, where did they get those arbitrary, biased ideas? They got them from the institutions in America. The experience is defined in relationship to those institutions -- moving toward or away from them. For example, I have a certain response to the southern, Black drawl when I hear it. I can click right into it. Those African men don't have that response. They can't do that. They can respond in part, for example, to The Blues, because the roots of The Blues are found in the survivals of African music. But there are elements that are part of the African Diaspora that they do not have the identity to connect with. There are some elements that they can connect with, and some that they cannot. My work has to be in support of thriving, not just surviving. It has to hold out something to look forward to, mostly by being inclusive, but also, some lines must be drawn."

Earlier, I had watched part of the audition Mr. Moses was conducting. I asked him what he was looking for in the audition.

"I am trying to get some collaboration going. I bring in dancers who can work in an idiom outside of what is normally considered dance. Truthfully, I don't know what I'm looking for in an audition. I guess I could say that I expect you to have this level of technique, or be able to do that number of pirouettes. But then I found in my work with Taiko, that there are a lot of things I can't do -- yet -- in disciplines outside of dance. At a certain point, the question becomes: 'Can you work consistently to develop the spark, the something that jumped out at me in the audition?' My need is to not lose rehearsal time working over things that some people can pick up right away. If I spend time to support dancers in that way, I lose precious creative time. The question isn't so much 'What am I looking for?' as 'What have you got? What do you bring into the studio?' If I have to look for it, the chances are I'm not going to find it."

"Dance is about imagery... We must stop treating dance as if it were music or literature... it reaches people in a different kind of way."

Mr. Moses reflected on some of the treasures he has found: "Sometimes I'll just see a beautiful person doing amazing things. A lot of times I'll see people who look like they're not sure. If they're not sure, chances are they're not interested. Sometimes it comes down to puppy love. I immediately love who I see and what I see them doing."

"Are you ever looking for people who look like they can dance your roles, who look like you?" I asked.

"No, I'm not looking for people who look like me," Mr. Moses said emphatically. "I can coach them to move in a certain way, but mostly I'm asking the question 'What opens you up to do other things?' My job is to put things together, to find people with both range and ensemble capacity. You have to be clear about what you express, and be able to express more than one thing. You have to know when you hit a note in harmony with someone across the room. I am not looking for me in other dancers. I'm not in my own world. I don't care about that. Even if it's sometimes dazzling, it can also be boring if that's what I look for over and over."

I asked Mr. Moses what kind of curriculum he thinks modern dancers require.

"I think they should do everything: In order to have range, you need to be well trained. You can't let yourself be embarrassed if you don't look good doing this or that. In the studio, that shouldn't matter -- initially. You have to be willing to look like an idiot, at times. That is the only way to explore new motion, new sensations." He pointed to the denotation of 15 sensations in some of the martial arts, such as Capoeira and the Asian disciplines, where tours are done on the horizontal. "You have to be able to be open to do everything you can. When I went to Bali, I was the slowest in the group. I had to accept that I was the least capable person in that group. It was hard to be that person, to realize that you're slow at doing 'their thing.' It slaps your ego around: 'Why don't I understand this?' You have to come face to face with the fact that it demands rigorous training of another kind, and that no one person can get it all. You are self-conscious about your environment, and you realize (painfully) that you are informed by your experience and how much you are attached to it."

Where does most of his creative work take place?

"I use everything, whatever and however it comes to me. I keep notebooks, I have titles in my head, and I use what happens in the studio, phrases that just come. I use my personal history, our collective history, or an experience that resonates. My job is to make someone relate to the experience. For example, I love Cunningham. To me, he is the most amazing artist because I don't relate to his experience, but I see it anyway, in what he creates. I have to shed myself of myself and just have the experience. My job is to make someone who is the diametrical opposite of me, someone like Rush Limbaugh [laughter], whose experience precludes looking at the particulars -- my job is to make all that fall away, so that someone like him -- even he sees the beauty."

I asked what the biggest frustrations were in this process.

"I have to get myself out of the way, stop procrastinating, stop getting stuck so that I can enjoy other people, get some money for the company, some space in which to work, some original composers to choreograph to. In the film Pollack, the artist basically got in his own way. He let people push him into situations he didn't need to be in. Sometimes, I just need to go home, close the door, be with my wife, and be with the dancers who know me. Time is our currency. We need time -- away. Time in a cabin in the country would be ideal, making work with bodies. Bodies are voices, color, and texture for my work. I need to be around people who force me to look at them anew, to avoid using them in the same way."

I asked Moses how he chooses music.

"I pick what I like, anything from John Cage to hip-hop. I like to listen to George Clinton. None of this has a thing to do with music theory. I like the ambient bass in Bill Lasswell. Some people work at realizing an idea through dance. But dance isn't just an idea. You have to see the flesh and blood first and foremost. That's what I was going for with Word of Mouth. Reality is more important than the idea. The universities and academic institutions insist on the overlay of The Idea. They flatten out the reality to satisfy their grant requirements.

"You have to be totally honest with yourself about your work. When you make something that you think is crap, you have to tell yourself, 'That's crap.' Sometimes, it takes months to look at something honestly. You see little shards. Your job is not to create work for the grant givers, but to satisfy the dancers. You want them to grow, and you have to provide the fertile ground for that to happen."


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Edited by Malcolm Tay

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