Thursday, September 25, 2014

Kyle Abraham's "Watershed" moment

Kyle Abraham (front) and company in The Watershed
(photo: Ian Douglas)
Kyle Abraham's The Watershed is, in no way, a work about opulence in the usual sense.  But at the end of my evening at New York Live Arts, that word quickly came to mind. I guess I mean an opulence of intention, conception, execution. An opulence of confidence. More than just making a new work. Really feeling that, for once, you've got the goods. And there's the deftly coordinated look, across a color spectrum I associate with humble yet versatile clay, of the set (by visual artist Glenn Ligon), lighting (Dan Scully) and costume designs (Karen Young). Your partners got this, too, clicking together all over that stage like the pieces of a solved puzzle. Satisfying. This production is large. My guest said she envisions it at Lincoln Center, but I was thinking BAM.

I have enjoyed KyleAbraham/ without really understanding how the choreographer's female dancers, no matter how focused their presence and rigorous their technique, never seem to pop from their surroundings like the male ones almost always do, and that has not changed. My most vivid memories of The Watershed will always be what men--individually or together--do, even how they radiate a palpable and purposeful individuality when they merely walk out into the space. And that includes Abraham himself, in one scene, sashaying in a satin gown and cottony wig and smearing light concealer all over his face.
Kyle Abraham in a scene from The Watershed
with set by Glenn Ligon
(photo: Ian Douglas)
Far from some overt, linear discourse on America's issue with race (and gender and sexuality), The Watershed appears to have been dreamed up like a series of scrims placed one behind another, each bearing a saturated or filmy stream of visual information. (There's sonic information, too--from Otis Redding to Chopin.) At any moment, you reach in as deep as you want, taking in what the dancers are doing--as dancers, as dancers of different genders, as dancers of different races--and making associations, perhaps according to your generation, your memories, your strongest concerns. The Watershed is, well, watery, a place of integration and transition, a turning point for many currents. Which one will carry you now?

So many ways to swim. Some of the music (Redding) takes me. The choreography, made in collaboration with the dancers, is an abundant--yes, opulent--gush and, true to this troupe's fashion, mercurial and full of flair. ("Beautiful," my guest called it, even as she felt that useful ambivalence about the way artists like Abraham, like Kara Walker, can draw us ever closer to disturbing things--like the most explosive racial stereotypes--by the beauty of their presentation.) When I zoom in on the dancers as dancers, I think I see Abraham quietly shaping an understory about how race plays out in the dance world. If I pull back, I see all of this in a more historical and societal context--literally, as projected images of civil rights demonstrators set upon by police dogs or cops beating a man into the ground play across the stage's wall. And it makes me wonder. The two things--artistic current and societal current--are they, in essence and effect, so different?

In a brief passage that made me ponder this, two Black dancers, contentedly going about the business of dancing, suddenly assume a submissive posture--chests sunken, heads bowed--when a white dancer suddenly enters and stands watching them. He maintains his dominant posture, his silent gaze, just long enough for it to register in our heads as a threat with all kinds of historical resonance. Just long enough. Then--surprise or no surprise--he peaceably slips into formation with them as they all finish out their dance.

If you noticed this moment at all, you might ask, "What did I just see?" Or, "Did I really see that, or did I see it/read it right?" All sorts of slippery stuff like that goes on in The Watershed, where irresistible rhythms and the dancing they inspire pull people of different cultures together. The work is chock full of images--some subtle, some blatant, some proffered with a wicked sense of humor and entitlement--that can only be willfully ignored.

I'm set to see Abraham's other New York Live Arts premiere, When the Wolves Came In, on September 30. More will be revealed.

KyleAbraham/ includes Abraham, Matthew Baker, Winston Dynamite Brown, Tamisha Guy, Catherine Ellis Kirk, Penda N'diaye, Jeremy "Jae" Neal, Jordan Morley and Connie Shiau. Sound design by Sam Crawford.

Remaining performances of The Watershed: Friday, September 26*, Wednesday, October 1, Friday, October 3** at 7:30pm, all reportedly sold out. For additional information, click here.

*September 26 at 6:30pm: Come Early Video Screening and Talk: Visual Artist and Videographer Carrie Schneider discusses her dance on camera collaboration with Kyle Abraham/AIM

*October 3: Stay Late Discussion: Aesthetics of Jazz and the Performance of Protest, moderated by Carrie Mae Weems

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