If there was an award for the most likely New York dance troupe to be compared to a sportscar, I’d give it to Abraham.In.Motion. The choreography is, like the best supercars, all torque and velocity, and Kyle Abraham’s dancers manage it with the agility of the most advanced gearbox.
Abraham’s work is constantly spiraling. Torsos twist at rest, in leaps, and in flashy spins – some airborne, some a-terre – executed with the feline grace of break dancing. Choreographically he relies on many staples from his own distinct vocabulary, which is both his blessing and his curse – it can lead to some moments of exquisite and unique beauty, but there is still room for expansion, more diversity of movement.
Quiet Dance from 2011, is set to Bill Evans’s transcription of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.” Played Tuesday night by pianist Kris Bowers, the plodding, rainy-day score is reminiscent of Satie’s ”Gymnopedies,” and to hear it played live was a real treat. The entire program featured live accompaniment, including Bowers, Otis Brown III on percussion, Chris Smith on bass and the vocals of Charenee Wade.
While not a singularly breathtaking piece, Quiet Dance is subdued and frequently beautiful. Connie Shiau, the introductory dancer in the work, moves her arms like Loie Fuller in the serpentine dance, sans butterfly fabric – a signature Abraham motif one sees again and again in this program (and if anyone saw his collaboration with Wendy Whelan, it’s in there too). There are many combined backbends and lunges, some particularly unforgiving – a deep lunge and full 180 back arc performed by Shiau – that closes the piece, her arms outstretched, a straining position that in a dancer’s hands, looks like soft ecstasy.
Not known for being a quiet choreographer, Abraham is not afraid to bring difficult topics to the stage. Absent Matter had its New York premiere Tuesday night, and features large projections of riots, death, burials, flames and handwritten “I Heart Ferguson” signs. The score combines the compositional talents of Bowers and Otis Brown III with samples from Common, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Hip-hop’s influence has always been part of the Abraham package, and the lyrics and rhythms, combined with visuals rendered by his dancers, prove a potent partnership.
Men are stopped cold in their tracks, their bodies slowly wind to the ground, as if you can see exactly where the bullet is lodged in their back. Tamisha Guy is particularly moving, her hands frequently raised, her fierce dancing growing visibly more and more exhausted. She’s tired. She’s tired of the repetition, tired of the loss, tired of narrative repeating.
Absent Matter makes many points, but perhaps the most obvious is that, sadly, the last year of headlines is nothing new. Racism and gun violence are systemic issues in America and Absent Matter makes one wonder if the Civil Rights Movement was in fact just a dream and never happened. But the closing lyrics, from Lamar, are more uplifting: “We gonna be alright.” I hope to God he’s right.
The closing work, The Gettin’ from last year, relates to Absent Matter but is less rangy, and more nervy. Set to an interpretation of Max Roach’s “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite” by Robert Glasper, The Gettin‘ gives the illusion of being chill, cool and relaxed, but is anything but.
There is more of Abraham’s breathless spiraling, but at the core of the piece is not-quite-pas-de-deux between two men, performed Tuesday by Jeremy “Jae” Neal and Matthew Baker. The subliminal tension is taut, wiry, spry and edgy. When they do touch – out of conflict or resolution (it fluctuates) – it is electric. Neal’s reflexes are beyond sharp, they’re the sharpest, and one wonders if his body has extra nerve endings. Neal and Baker, who pace like panthers, look as if they’re ready to pounce at any minute, tapping a certain subliminal, masculine violence. The revolving relationship, which includes an exquisite (and difficult) lift, recalls a line from the poem “Country Music” by Matthew Dickman: “I have a way I’m supposed to walk down the street like a violent decision that hasn’t been made yet.”
How Abraham fits into the future of the dance canon, time will tell but, from a choreographic perspective alone, he is already accomplished, with growing potential. Politically speaking, he is not subtle but, like many artists before him, contributing to a longstanding dialogue on injustice. A new report has just been released revealing that deaths at the hands of the LAPD have doubled in a year. An additional report on the LAPD is particularly grim.
Here’s hoping Abraham’s work becomes part of a larger canon that makes everyone, including those in positions of power and influence, sit up and take notice.