Choreographer Kyle Abraham knows that everyone needs a good cry now and then, and if he seems overwrought at times, his work also offers relief from the cold, uncaring routines of modern life. His company, A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, offered a warm and wonderfully sensitive program, Nov. 4, as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University.
Each day our world becomes more digitized and impersonal. Yet our humanity will not be suppressed. “Feelings,” as the late Nina Simone once said, “are the base.” Simone’s songs of the desperate lovelorn inspired an affecting dance by Abraham called “If We Were a Love Song.” Abraham is the sort who can distill emotion even from silence, however, as he demonstrated in the sly duet “MotorRover.” He enlisted three other choreographers to share the bill, and all seemed similarly inclined.
Tamisha A. Guy and Donovan Reed set the tone for “Uproot: love and legacy,” the gentle opener choreographed by Maleek Washington. Seated beneath a flowering tree, they nuzzled and embraced. Then trouble appeared in the form of new arrivals: first Catherine Kirk, who intrigued the loving couple with rhythm; then Gianna Theodore, who explored the space until Jamaal Bowman was tossed onstage to make her life more interesting. Theodore and Bowman clasped hands and struggled; at one point he hauled her around the stage by her head. Even so, when all the friends came together there was no hint of mischief until the surprising moment when Reed signaled a break, leaving his honeybunch suddenly bereft and wondering what went wrong.
Paul Singh’s terrific solo “Just Your Two Wrists” seemed more formal, until we realized that its minimalist score was telegraphing romantic obsession. As the chorus in David Lang’s oratorio fantasized about lips, breasts and anointing oils (the text derives from the Song of Songs), Amari Frazier tried bravely to get through his day. With sharp gestures and clean leaps, he seemed to defy a passion that returned to haunt him with a sudden moment of weakness, or with a pang that made his chest contract. He sighed. Did this young man’s beloved know he was pining away?
“MotorRover” seems to have evolved, growing more relaxed and gestural since Abraham choreographed this male duet for a video in 2021. Informal transitions in which a dancer simply walks to a new position are more apparent, as are swishy gestures and arch looks that signal gayness. Bowman joined Reed, casually falling into sync with him, and supported his deep penchés. They embraced passionately but also brushed past each other as if by accident, making Reed giggle. At one point, Bowman seemed to be chewing gum. Such antics recalled what critic David Gere once called the “heroic effeminacy” of a notoriously campy dance by Joe Goode. The abstraction of Merce Cunningham’s “Landrover” isn’t enough for Abraham; in this (new?) stage version of “MotorRover,” pure dance has become political.
Bebe Miller’s celebrated solo “Rain,” from 1989, provided another point of reference. Kirk was the weary soloist in a red dress, struggling toward the illuminated patch of grass upstage that symbolized happiness. At first, she could only approach it backward. Then she rested her cheek against it, savoring its freshness. At last, following the alluring melody of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras,” Kirk found herself in the middle of the green pastures promised by the psalmist. But does it last? Miller is too cynical for that, and sends her soloist tumbling off the lawn into darkness.
Cue Nina Simone. Torch songs like “Don’t Explain” and ballads such as “Little Girl Blue” are so sad they take your breath away. Add Abraham’s choreography and they become a plea for mercy. Yet we can thank these artists for reminding us we are alive.
“If We Were a Love Song” opened with a group number that became a pietà, and then spotlighted the dancers in solos and a duet. Was Reed really “The Keeper of the Flame”? Or was he merely listening to the song, as we were, exalted by its passion? Reed stretched his eloquent back and posed obliquely. He caressed himself and spun, then, recovering, hiked up his pants and moved on. We know this one will survive. But Theodore may or may not survive the sorrow of “Little Girl Blue.” In this solo where capoeira meets the blues, the dancer repeatedly found herself topsy-turvy, propped on her head. Rising up, she gathered her hands to her chest and sank again — maybe for the last time.
Frazier was the lovesick victim of “Don’t Explain,” where he met Reed in an intimate circle of light (remember the tiny love nest in “Giovanni’s Room”?). The light was soft; the duet, tender. The men embraced, and danced in parallel, or offered gentle support. Slowly, luxuriantly, the movement unfolded to the tempo of a song that revealed betrayal. When he couldn’t take it anymore, Frazier staggered out of the circle, spastic and broken.
Two solos remained, both tearjerkers. Martell Ruffin whipped restlessly through “Wild Is the Wind,” reaching behind himself at one point for the hand that (sob!) wasn’t there. In “Images,” Faith Joy Mondesire bore the weight of a prejudice that did not allow her to see her beauty. Then the dance broke off, as if Abraham himself couldn’t go on.
Is it embarrassing to make such feelings public? Should we take a pill? Some would like to dope and mechanize us, for sure, but this choreographer seems to understand that emotions are our superpower.
For more on A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, visit aimbykyleabraham.org.
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