The American choreographer Kyle Abraham has garnered much acclaim on the other side of the Pond, but this performance of Pavement at Sadler’s Wells was his London debut. The 2012 work takes as its touchstone the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton’s hard-hitting coming-of-age drama that laid bare the hopes and unbridled horrors of life for African-Americans in South Central, Los Angeles. Pavement relocates us to Abraham’s native Pittsburgh, a city whose African-American history was superbly chronicled in August Wilson’s cycle of plays, and whose crumbling decline and rising gang culture Abraham witnessed first-hand. The piece implicitly asks what has changed for African-Americans in the two decades since Singleton’s film mapped out the grim effects on black communities of discrimination, police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, drug addiction and gang violence. The answer is not very uplifting – but Abraham presents bleak truth through an eloquent, elegant, elegiac flow of movement.
On a sparse stage, sketched out to look like a neighbourhood basketball court, Abraham and his six dancers transported us to a densely symbolic world, where violence appeared wearing a mantle of grace, and where muscular modern ballet came brilliantly adorned with expansive street gestures and a funky dip and glide. Vivaldi, Bach and Britten all featured in Abraham’s soundtrack – it meant the tough job of becoming a man in the environment he evoked was often being played out poignantly against a castrato’s song.
Abraham began the piece alone on stage, moving with sinuous ease and stylised baller gestures to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s hill country blues; more dancers joined him – then one white dancer went to each black dancer in turn, placed the man’s hands behind his back as though handcuffing him, and lowered him gently, face-down, to the floor. This was a repeated action throughout the hour-long piece, an unnerving combination of violence and serenity. Sometimes the dancer got right back up, dusted himself off and carried on; sometimes the emotional pain of what had happened was etched on his face and body; sometimes he remained frozen on the ground as the others carried on around him.
Abraham’s choreographic vocabulary was carefully calibrated to throw up ambiguity. The dancers ran in a circle round the stage, keeping disciplined time, breaking into leaping strides together or marking time on the spot – were we to think of athletes on a running track, soldiers in training, or prisoners in the jail yard? The final moments of the piece had the dancers lie on top of each other in the handcuffed, face-down pose as Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway were played – they looked like piles of dead bodies, the victims of a holocaust – but some wriggled free, and Tamisha Guy (the one woman in this work) turned herself around and held the man lying on top of her, as if offering sanctuary.
Key scenes from Boyz n the Hood were filtered into the soundtrack, which could be a little disconcerting – if you knew the film well, it was hard then to block that narrative from your mind and concentrate on the more abstracted expressive movement on stage. Abraham added drama to the piece with his own dialogue at certain points, but the busy soundtrack meant it was a little hard to hear what he was saying. But what worked into your soul was a sense of a group’s hard-fought-for camaraderie and brutal coming-of-age in a city coming apart around them – literally, on the video beamed on to the basketball hoop’s backboard, which at one point showed a building being blown up. In a determinedly masculine piece, Guy, a mesmerically fluid dancer, was a healing balm. But the focus was on the men’s affectionately awkward grappling, tussles and all-out fights, segued seamlessly into Abraham’s sinewy, modern choreographic mash-up.