Dancing Identity and Freedom: On Kyle Abraham’s Dances and The Upcoming Season at New York Live Arts
By Carl Paris
My Take: In Kyle Abraham’s world, shifting narratives of love, pain, anger, violence and politics emerge and dissolve almost seamlessly across hip-hop-inflected body ripples, queer club-culture, provocative theatrical representations and technically-stunning modern dance. The diverse dancing bodies luxuriate in the demanding variety of Abraham’s movement, yet are capable of reminding us of people we know, desire or avoid. Sometimes oblique in the telling, these narratives invite us to feel (and question) how we see others and ourselves across assumptions and understandings of life, culture and identity.
As much into Lil Wayne as J.S. Bach, this thirty-seven year old, New York-based choreographer is quick to tell you that his work is informed in no small way by the combination of his experiences growing up “a gay black male” within hip-hop and black culture in his native Pittsburgh and his education in classical music and the visual arts.* Thus, leaning toward the postmodern and experimental, Abraham strives for an interdisciplinary approach, which integrates visual and sonic elements with his choreographic language.
With such qualities in evidence, Abraham premieres two distinct programs in the New York Live Arts’ 2014 Season: The Watershed, an evening-length work and When the Wolves Came In, a suite of three dances. (I attended relatively early rehearsals; therefore, I did not see full costuming and scenery.) The new works explore themes around freedom and are inspired by Max Roach’s protest music of the Sixties, historical milestones in black American civil rights and the twentieth anniversary of the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. In exploring these themes, Abraham builds on some choreographic strategies that have worked well for him (as in The Radio Show and Pavement). One such strategy is a counterintuitive layering of dance sequences with pedestrian interactions, creating, in my mind, interesting overlapping scenarios of people on the street. Another strategy is Abraham’s gorgeous solo appearances and interactions with the dancers, which simultaneously illuminate the personal intricacies of his movement and drive the choreographic narrative.
As I watch rehearsals, it becomes clear that the idea of freedom is in what the dancing says about it. Abraham has said that he chooses his dancers not for type, but for the compatibility of their personalities and talents. This season, although the male body continues to claim many of the meaty roles, a strong female presence allows for compelling interactions between men and women, which, combined with Abraham’s signature male-to-male situations, complicates questions of power and agency like: Who leads? Who follows? How far will you go to love me? Do I touch you, should I kiss you in front of everyone? In this context, notions of freedom are both slippery and metaphorical; most intelligible, I argue, in the oppositional situations Abraham creates through his eclectic sampling of music, the expressive dancing bodies (black, white, Asian, short, tall—ten including Abraham, all beautiful dancers) and the social and cultural values we associate with them.
We might see this in The Watershed, for example, where Abraham juxtaposes intense changes of music, sounds, vocalizations and dancing bodies to probe connections between violence and freedom. A repeated phrase of a woman running and a man stopping her confirms that such connections are persistently there, yet mutable in their interpretation. Similarly, the first of the three dances of When The Wolves Came In, also titled “When The Wolves Came In,” features the classical choral music (by Nico Muhly) that helps set up a kind of sarcastic formalism in need of a challenge. Visual gestures, such as the six dancers taking off their big crazy beehive wigs and getting down to dancing business offer humorous and edgy ways to think about how symbols interact with human agency.
From there, “The Gettin’,” consisting of five sections, nudges us toward a more sensual groove, notably bolstered by the live collaboration of jazz artist Robert Glasper and his trio. And Abraham leaves it up to us to construct what freedom means when bodies compete against one another or when a woman’s singing/screaming voice provides the backdrop for a black male and a white male alternating between intimate interaction and defiantly standing their ground. “Hallowed” rounds out that groove with a trio, set to spirituals and gospel songs and an inventive interspersing of wacking, voguing, popping and locking with modern dance, designed, I imagine, to explore linkages between black modes of worship and affirming self through the dancing.
Together, these new works reflect Abraham’s concern with connecting visual and kinetic power and excavating critical humanistic stories. As such, they offer interesting new perspectives on ways in which dance, identity, gender and race intersect. Clearly, this season marks a pivotal moment in Kyle Abraham’s spectacular ascendance and he is aware of the pressures. No doubt, his talent and hard work will prove rewarding.
* All biographical material is based on interviews with Kyle Abraham.