Robert Moses Kin: Bootstraps Initiative connects choreography and community

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday March 14, 2023
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Robert Moses in rehearsal (photo: Steve Disenhof)
Robert Moses in rehearsal (photo: Steve Disenhof)

For more than 25 years, Robert Moses has been a powerful force in the Bay Area arts community. His choreographic work for his own San Francisco-based troupe, Robert Moses Kin (RMK), and companies around the world has attracted both praise and controversy, as it often deals with subjects such as race, identity, social justice and power.

Beyond the stage, Moses, who identifies as straight and is the father of two teenagers, is deeply committed to education, having served in teaching positions at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, Mills College and University of San Francisco. He's also been a master teacher at international dance festivals in Mexico, Russia and India. But for the past few years, Moses has been focused on his work here at home, not only with RMK but with students and seniors in some of our city's most under-served communities.

Robert Moses Kin's Bootstraps workshop at the Booker T. Washington Community Service Center in San Francisco (photo: Steve Disenhof)  

In 2021, with funding from Mayor London Breed's Dream Keeper Initiative — a citywide program that aims to break the cycle of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system in San Francisco's Black community — Moses was able to launch a program that he had been dreaming about for years. Bootstraps: Lyric Legacies is a collaborative initiative with RMK, San Francisco Unified School District and Boys & Girls Clubs, which brings teaching artists and members of the RMK company out into schools and senior centers to conduct multidisciplinary workshops that allow participants to tell their own cultural stories.

Christine "Teen" Joy Ferrer, Educational Program Coordinator for Bootstraps, believes the program is a natural extension of RMK's work on stage. Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter, Ferrer said, "The beautiful thing about Robert's work is that it incorporates dance, poetry and original music he often creates himself. For Robert, it has always been about the creative process. That's what the Bootstraps program does as well.

"There are lots of workshops out there that focus on technique and preparing for a performance," she explained. "But Bootstraps isn't just about dance. It's about creativity, mindfulness and wellness. We bring in cultural artists of all kinds, so this program is connecting with people of all ages from a very ancestral, elemental space of thinking."

Bootstraps workshops flip the student/teacher narrative, Ferrer said. "Teachers may plan on working on dance, but if the students aren't responding, they might shift gears and focus on breathing and allow the students to tell a little bit of their stories, then try to transform that into music or drumming. Whatever participants want to focus on in that moment, we will acknowledge and support."

At the conclusion of each session, RMK company members create and perform works-in-progress inspired by workshop participants, who are invited, but not required, to participate.

To date, Bootstraps has touched the lives of more than 200 participants, but Ferrer's goals for the program are far loftier.

"This is not only a dope experience for students, but for us as teachers, to learn and appreciate the creative process. This is so much more than learning a dance and performing it. I want this program to remind us and our community of our divinity, and to see that we are all connected. If we just bring a little of that to our students, we've done our job."

Robert Moses' dance, 'Crystaldawn Bell' (photo: RJ Muna)  

Return to Presidio Theatre
As with all performing arts organizations, the last few years have been extremely challenging for Moses and his company.

"When the pandemic hit," Moses said with a deep sigh, "our dancers scattered everywhere across the country. It was challenging to just keep things running. We created work virtually, and we had keep funding going and people employed."

Although in-person performances have returned to Bay Area stages, Moses says the challenges continue.

"Audiences have shifted, and we just don't know if they will all come back. Some people are still struggling, but we need folks to see what we are doing! Here's what I say: 'Quit binging stuff on TV. Get off your butt, come to the theater and have an actual experience. Sit next to someone who is sniffling because something touches them deeply. Be with people who understand the beauty of the work these people are doing on stage.'

"We did all the virtual programming and that was fine, but the mode that works best for us, how we touch people's hearts and make them feel something, is by having them come into the theater with us. Come to the theater and we will move you!"

Long known for work that expands the boundaries of contemporary dance, RMK's spring season will no doubt feature works incorporating modern, ballet, hip-hop and jazz. However, with less than a month before the curtain rises on the company's spring season, Moses has purposedly not yet named the three works that will be presented.

When asked about it, Moses said, "Well, sometimes it takes time to get what you're after. If I say too much too early about a piece, then audiences will be looking for that, and it might not be there, and they might feel taken advantage of."

He was willing to give a few hints about what's on his mind and how that might play out on the stage.

"There's a story about a child who is sitting down for a big cry, saying, 'I want everything and I ain't got nothing!' His friends come along and say, 'Don't worry about that, we'll figure this out,' and we go on a journey inside the child's mind. And I've been thinking a lot about the stuff that's going on in Florida around Black education."

Having performed on stages around the city since its inception, Moses has made the beautifully renovated Presidio Theatre his company's new home.

"It's such a lovely space in a beautiful part of the city. It's a place where you can spend more time before or after a performance. You can sit on the green and talk about what you're going to see, or have dinner, or walk in the woods. We're all so busy with the stress of life. The Presidio gives you time to have a slow life for a moment."

Robert Moses Kin Spring Season, March 24-26, Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center, 99 Moraga Avenue, San Francisco. $8-$45.

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