Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kyle Abraham's season continues: "When the Wolves Came In"

Dancers from
Kyle Abraham's When the Wolves Came In
(photo: Carrie Schneider)

Last Thursday, I reported on Kyle Abraham's other premiere, The Watershed (see here). This week, I saw When the Wolves Came In, Program B of the much-anticipated Kyle Abraham/Abraham.in.Motion season at New York Live Arts. This second evening combines three pieces inspired by the powerful We Insist!: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, a 1960 album that drew themes from historic struggles for Black freedom in the US and South Africa. As in The Watershed, noted visual artist Glenn Ligon created the smudgy silhouette design that, over time, suggests an uncertain future and erupting turbulence. Grammy® Award-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper composed the alternately sensuous and wrenching score, including elements of Roach's material, for the final piece. He performs it live with bass player Vicente Archer, drummer Otis Brown III and singer Charenee Wade whose voice evokes both Abbey Lincoln (vocalist on We Insist!) and Nina Simone.

When The Wolves Came In seems an even more ambitious gesture than The Watershed, one that both overreaches and reaches not far enough. The first of the evening's works, When The Wolves Came In, set to choral music by Nico Muhly, employs ballet vocabulary roughed up by contemporary movement accents--like flipped pelvises and twitched hips and female dancers who sometimes pad around on all fours--and disruptive costuming by Reid Bartelme. By disruptive, I mean that, for one thing, the absurdly elongated and plastered-down jet black, copper and blonde wigs that decorate dancers' heads pull much (perhaps too much) attention and curiosity. I felt nothing from (or for) Wolves, finding it unreadable. Should I relax and just appreciate the technique as technique? Should I try to decipher the point of the fanciful costuming? I finally settled for sitting back and letting it all roll past me.

The middle section, Hallowed, honors spirituality via gospel recordings by two Civil Rights movement vocalists, Cleo Kennedy and Bertha Gober. Here, I perked up a bit, mainly because it's impossible to look at Abraham's own complex movement vocabulary without tracing the co-mingled streams of Black diaspora and Black Gay diaspora, and Abraham makes the fluid sensuality and sexuality inherent in Black spirituality and Black spiritual community a little more visible through dancer Jeremy "Jae" Neal in the featured role of this trio. Neal's gorgeous dancing stands out as a model of concentration, the mastery of minute detail and timing. He claims the movement and wears his persona within it very well.

Connie Shiau in The Gettin' from
When the Wolves Came In
(photo: Ian Douglas) 

The Gettin' concludes Wolves, and it takes me back to an impression that I had while looking at The Watershed--that Abraham isn't just setting dance against the visual backdrop of white (and straight) supremacy and Black (and gay) struggle. He is showing up for struggle specifically as a dancer. In Gettin', images from apartheid and of police brutality against demonstrators and other civilians spread across the theater's wall. The work's centerpiece is a lengthy, full-tilt, competitive duet of mostly identical movement shared by Matthew Baker, who is white, and Neal, a Black man. Watching that duet, I thought about how it might feel to devote oneself to such an enveloping, consuming pursuit--training in dance, performing dance, making dance--while the world outside, then as now, reveals its derangement and its beckoning possibilities. How might that outside world and that other inside world flow into one another--for better or for worse?

At times, I'm too distracted by Abraham's facility with movement, his abundance, to feel what he has on his heart--or to feel the connection he has made to all of these iconic images from history and the current moment. Perhaps everything here is moving too fast for me. But I value Abraham's searching, and I would like to understand.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.in.Motion includes Abraham, Matthew Baker, Winston Dynamite BrownTamisha GuyCatherine Ellis KirkPenda N'diaye, Jeremy "Jae" Neal, Jordan Morley and Connie Shiau.

Remaining shows:  Thursday, October 2* and Saturday, October 4 at 7:30pm.
For programming and ticket information, including the closing night benefit party, click here.

*October 2: Stay Late Discussion: Creating When the Wolves Came In - Thomas Lax, Associate Curator, Media and Performance Art at MoMA in conversation with Kyle Abraham and Robert Glasper

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