Robert Moses’ “Bootstrap Tales” Offers Message of Hope

by Jean Schiffman

New dance work is inspired by Moses’ outreach initiative in support of foster kids.

At the first rehearsal for “Bootstrap Tales,” choreographer Robert Moses’ new piece for his 23-year-old, award-winning San Francisco company, Robert Moses’ Kin, dancers Khala Brannigan and Cora Cliburn are silently playing a game to explore ways of physically connecting: my hand/your hand, my hand/your elbow, my hand/your wrist and so on. The game is a tool, says Moses, who’s sitting on the sidelines in a hoodie and baseball cap. “That’s how we start a conversation,” he explains in a running, soto voce, almost stream-of-consciousness commentary throughout the rehearsal. “I told them to explore the open space. Then I said, ‘You’re not allowed to stand in front of each other.’ Then, ‘Can you vocalize the exchange and turn it into a conversation that you two would understand, but not necessarily me?’”

A busy teacher, a choreographer of note who has composed original scores for some of his dances and collaborated with other luminaries in his field, and a husband and father of two, he’ll fly to Goa later tonight, where he will create a dance piece for a festival there.

The inspiration for “Bootstrap Tales”—which had a one-day workshop several months earlier—is Moses’ outreach initiative, the Bootstrap Program, a partnership with various agencies including San Francisco’s Family & Children’s Services. Through mentorship with practicing artists, the program aims to enable San Francisco foster youth to conceive of a life in the arts that can begin right now. Kids in foster care, and those aging out of the system, need to know, Moses says, that such a life is attainable without necessarily “going through a four-year program or taking my classes for years—not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s not right for everybody.” 

To believe in a bright personal future: That is the hope that Moses has for the mentees in the Bootstrap Program, and that hope is guiding him in envisioning “Bootstrap Tales,” which he sees as a poetic way to talk about how lives can change for the better. At this stage of development, he is rereading Grimm’s fairytales and writing little allegories that relate to the theme of facing obstacles, overcoming challenges, but he expects the piece to morph in the weeks of rehearsal ahead. Still, the core will remain the same: “I want to talk about what’s possible,” he says. 

Today, Moses purposely chose to begin work with these two dancers because they are newcomers to the company; the others have been with him for 10 years. Brannigan and Cliburn don’t really know him yet, he explains, so they won’t be trying to “solve my problems for me,” nor do they know what his idea for the piece is. At this early stage of development, the problem-solving needs to take place in his head. 

He gazes at the dancers, still playing the connection game. “With women, this looks lovely,” he muses. “With men, it looks like they’re fighting.” (The “Bootstrap Tales” company has three men, seven women.) He watches thoughtfully as the game merges into a duet. “They’re on top of each other, but how to read this?” he wonders. “Are they helping each other? Do we understand what their world is? Maybe it reads as ‘alone together’—but what the hell does that mean?” He has more questions-to-self than answers at this point.

The word bootstrap itself has, for Moses, many possible meanings: being prepared, self-preservation—but it’s not an old-fashioned notion, not like Ayn Rand, he adds hastily. “Maybe it’s about boot leather!” He chuckles.

He cues up some temporary rehearsal music (for the actual performance, street musicians will create a sound score that composer PC Muñoz will complete and master in a recording studio) and begins to break down a section into a series of gestures. “That’s a little too pretty,” he tells them, guiding them into viscerally compelling “judders,” herky-jerky movements. “Shorter, tenser,” he says. “Smaller, quicker.”

The judders, he explains in a post-rehearsal interview, are a way to break things up. “To see people broken like that is really interesting… . It works for its emotional starkness. And because seeing someone behave physically differently than the norm kind of sets them apart, and that isolation is part of
it as well. I’m thinking of isolation.”

A lot about creating this new piece feels different to him. He hadn’t been working with text for a while because it was becoming a crutch, but now, he says, he’s re-embracing it. “Maybe there’ll be emotion embedded in an action,” he offers, “and maybe there’ll be a narrative.” Nor will he be approaching the score in the typical way—that is, by hiring a composer, saying, “I have this idea, can you write for this emotion in this time frame?” etc. Whatever the street musicians create is likely to be a welcome departure from the expected.

How else is this piece different from such previous works of Robert Moses’ Kin as “The Cinderella Principle” (2010), about parentage and identity, or “Biography of Baldwin” (2003), about author James Baldwin? “Hopefully everything,” he says. “I’m making this piece, but I’m not at the center of the process. So that’s the thing that’s maybe most different about this piece.” “Bootstrap Tales” emerges from the values and goals of the Bootstrap Program, and both spring from a need Moses feels to offer “a ray of sunshine.” It is an ephemeral concept for a dance piece, he concedes, but his message to the foster kids in the mentorship program, and perhaps to dance audiences as well, is “The world is a brighter place than you think!” 

Feb 23 → 25

Yerba Buena Center for
the Arts Theatre

700 Howard St., San Francisco