Kyle Abraham dances about race

Abraham.In.Motion arrives with a searching dance exploration of race in our times

Abraham.In.Motion, the company of choreographer Kyle Abraham, brought an intense, three-part program to Lincoln Hall this weekend, one that confidently and gracefully engaged both historical and very immediate issues of race and the individual’s place in this culture. Abraham’s background fuses hip-hop and contemporary and traditional dance, and the company collaborates on both choreographic and structural decisions to benefit from the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of its dancers. The three pieces explore motifs of institutional racism, protest and the perils of being an individual body in a world that can be either openly or insidiously oppressive.

The Times’s Gia Kourlas has criticized Abraham for not being “fully formed enough as a choreographer” to tackle the “timely—and, for a dance a huge subject” of racial injustice, citing her impression of the work as sketchy and repetitive at points. My impression was that Abraham and his dancers were choosing angles on this topic and were knowingly driving their point home with a variety of takes on repeated themes. Repetition, when it comes to racial awareness and protest in the US, appears to be absolutely necessary. In 2016 the repetitive acts of oppression and violence at hand show no signs of stopping on their own. And yes, the subject is too huge to cover entirely on stage in one evening—or a million evenings.

I think there was something canny and kind about starting the show with The Quiet Dance, a bittersweet, lyrical meditation on isolation that stayed very comfortably within its reach. When almost anyone can get away with an overstuffed and cranked-up soundtrack, it’s a relief to see, well, a quiet dance, and this spareness made room for the gravity of the subject.

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham's 'The Gettin'/Courtesy of White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography All rights reserved  http://www.jerryandlois.com

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Gettin’/Courtesy of White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography
All rights reserved
http://www.jerryandlois.com

Connie Shiau starts the piece standing alone in silence before Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” starts up. Spare and fluid, the dance used simple mechanics to trace a path around the experience of alienation and otherness. The group’s costume and lighting was a dry faded blue while the soloist was clad in sandy yellow, or vice versa after an almost instant costume change

Absent Matter and The Gettin both employed much more complex soundtracks and stage dressing, but retained the solidity of Quiet. Each element had a purpose and added an urgency to the message, which was often directly spoken by repeated samples in the rich and engaging soundtracks.

Absent Matter blended large-scale projections of riots, protests, recent footage from Ferguson, Missouri, and Civil Rights-era documentary footage, set to a soundtrack arranged by Kris Bowers and Otis Brown III, including samples from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Common. The audio and visual collage of references and subjects did not seem like a sketch to me at all, and the focus was handled with patience and sensitivity to the audience. A few transitions either on stage or onscreen happened while my eyes were locked on another piece of the action, but the pacing and repetition of the formal element allowed me time to let these changes converse with each other as the show progressed. I had time after breaking away from ghostly images of impoverished black laborers to consider the relationship of those images to the newly shirtless dancer, standing with his back to the audience, exposed.

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham's 'The Gettin'/Courtesy of White Bird, © Jerry and Lois PhotographyAll rights reservedhttp://www.jerryandlois.com

Tamisha Guy and Vinson Fraley Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Gettin’/Courtesy of White Bird, © Jerry and Lois Photography
All rights reserved
http://www.jerryandlois.com

There were standout passages: Shiau’s solos; Tonisha Guy’s solo in Absent Matter; Matthew Baker’s duet with Vinson Fraley Jr, which seemed likely to explode at any second, and Penda N’diaye’s electric combination of guile and charm in the jazz-influenced movements of The Gettin. Through all this, a relationship between the aesthetic of racially-charged images and the abstract and formal qualities of dance emerged. We readily resonate with artistic representations of sadness or alienation or frustration or violence, but a quiet form of institutional racism assigns the iconography of specific forms of oppression to the oppressed, implying that images of protest, police violence and urban decay are somehow “black” in a way that separates them from “universal” images. This is the aesthetic equivalent of referring to Darren Wilson’s trial as the “Michael Brown Grand Jury Process.” We do not usually try white victims after they have been killed, yet Michael Brown’s name was at the top of the Washington Post article about the trial of Wilson.

We start to understand in this work that certain movements and positions are almost exclusive to black bodies in this culture. And we rightly start to feel uncomfortable in our seats, notably when the usually vibrant and fluid Guy sinks to floor with a leaden exhaustion, face down, with her hands behind her back in an unmistakable position of submission, of arrest. The one Oscar Grant was in when he was shot point blank in the back.

The giant, grainy, looped projection of Eric Garner’s horrific death by choking set the question in our minds at least for a moment: What if I was in that position? What if these dancers were, against their will? What if someone stopped their beautiful movements and made them ugly and still, simply because they came from a black body? What is stopping that from happening by mistake, or for no reason at all? Some of us have to be reminded to ask these questions; some can’t sleep at night because of them. But the genius of Abraham’s concert is to make you feel them, over and over, and move with them a little.

I’m not sure how many times we need to repeat a moment of empathy before it sticks in the culture, but we haven’t hit that limit yet. The show lets us return home repeating, in Kendrick Lamar’s measured, angry, but hopeful voice, “We gonna be all right”.

NOTES

The company has three free community engagement events coming up: for info and reservations, email mtran@reed.edu.

1. Workshop for Dance Students (Intermediate/Advanced Level) Monday, March 14, 2016, 3:10–4:30 pm in the PAB Dance Studio at Reed College. Students from regional and local colleges, and community dance places are invited to participate (PSU, Lewis & Clark, Pacific University, PCC, Western Oregon University, Conduit, NWDP, BodyVox, etc.)

2. A Lecture-Demonstration on Kyle Abraham;a Choreographic Work with the Company, 6:30 pm Monday, March 14 PAB Dance Studio.

3. Workshop for Students in All Arts Discipline (Dance/Theater/Music/Visual Arts/Creative Writing) 4:10–5:30 pm Tuesday, March 15, PAB Dance Studio. Students from regional and local colleges, and community dance studios are invited to participate.

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