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Passion and Resonant Imagery From Robert Moses

Janice Berman on January 26, 2013
Brendan Barthel and Norma Fong
Photos by rj muna

Nevabawarldapece, a new, live dance-and-music-and-spoken-word extravaganza choreographed by RobertMoses, is fitfully brilliant yet ultimately as hard to read as its title. Maybe harder, since Moses says that the work, which premiered Friday and closes Sunday at the Lam Research Theater, translates to “Never be a world of peace.” Oh, you may be wondering, why didn’t he just use that? Like the title, the dance itself, while laced with compelling movement and performed by the 10 excellent dancers who constitute Robert Moses’ Kin, would have become clearer with some judicious editing. However, its passion and resonant imagery puts it head and shoulders above last year’s premiere, Moses’ Helen, which opened the evening.

Billed as an exploration of liberation movements, Neva… puts the collaborators — vocalist Laura Love, blues musician and composer Corey Harris, and writer and performer Carl Hancock Rux — onstage opposite the dancers, setting up a wonderful dynamic vibe. There were five additional musicians, including, to marvelous effect, Woody Simmons on the banjo. The musicians and writer span a multitude of genres. Love alone identifies as “Afro-Celtic, Folk-Funk, Hip-Appalachian”; Harris is a blues musician and composer and arrives on the program complete with the subtitle “MacArthur fellow,” but each collaborator bears an impressive resume.

The problem lies in an imbalance of narration and music. The songs embody considerable liberation theology, beautifully. An underbeat lends buoyancy to a song of the French resistance, a refreshing folkdance full of frisky charm. Music infused with warm dignity surrounds quotes from Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), and John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath). There are blues tunes evoking the African-American diaspora, banjo strums of Appalachia, and the poverty of the dustbowl. And then there’s Rux, wearing out his welcome. Despite his keenly observed, impassioned, sometimes ironic passages enumerating all the challenges of poverty, joblessness and homelessness, to name but a few, he also delivers too many harangues, detracting from the music as well as the movement. We get it — the musicians are singing it; the dancers are showing it. We can see the aggression, the sorrow, for grace under pressure.

Crystal Dawn Bell
Crystal Dawn Bell

Through the choreography, in fact, Moses is presenting what really feels like the antithesis of 'nevabawarldapece.' There’s an underlying sense of perpetual harmony, the potential for conciliation overcoming violence, and from that, more than a shred of hope.

There is no Robert Moses’ Kin body type. There is no level at which Moses seems most comfortable; the floorwork, such as Jeremy Bannon-Neches’ final solo, is as energetic and dynamic as the opening moves by Brendan Barthel; fluid, generous, and spacious. His work admits the coupling of strength, beauty and grace, as practiced by Crystaldawn Bell in wonderfully steady arabesques. It also has room for the airborne speed, delicacy and tensile power of Katherine Wells, whose shirt bore a rhinestone peace symbol. The costumes, incidentally, are not as illustrated here; they were revised to a palette of gray and white assorted sports clothes, and they worked well. David K.H. Elliott’s lighting was dim yet luminous, with a marvelous metallic effect at the exposed back wall of the stage, where compellingly combative partnering commanded the eye and raised alarm. The other fine dancers were Vincent Chavez, Norma Fong, Carly Johnson, Dexandro “D” Montalvo, Josie Garthwaite Sadan, and Victor Talledos.

Perhaps of all the images Moses included, the most striking was the partnering that lifted the women in the air, arms outstretched and hands flickering like beating wings. The cruciform positions suggested both sacrifice and a hope of salvation, the wings both escape and peace. Who could hope for more?