“Some say we are responsible for those we love. Others know we are responsible for those who love us,” reads the Nikki Giovanni quote in Kyle Abraham’s choreographer program note. For the last four years, Kyle Abraham and his company A.I.M have been in process for the creation of “An Untitled Love”, an intimate portrait welcomed for the We Are One Festival by co-commissioners White Bird at the Newmark Theatre through March 4. Performed to a spellbinding album-length soundtrack from Grammy Award-winning R&B musical artist D’Angelo, the dance theatre piece features ten technically advanced company members enacting the intertwined stories of varied personal relationships.
Thanks to costume design by Karen Young and Abraham himself, “An Untitled Love”’” is set in an ambiguous era, somewhere between the 1960s and present day, lending it a sense of timelessness and relatability. With only a sofa and lamp, lighting design by Dan Scully, and visual art by Joe Buckingham, Abraham is able to transform the proscenium stage into a bustling neighborhood block, an intimate house party, a bathroom boudoir, or a dance club. These scenes are activated through the character work of the dancers; a series of contemporary duets and group pieces telling a story that is clearly very intimate to the life of the choreographer, and described as a ‘Black love sitcom’ in an interview by company dancer Catherine Kirk.
As the full-length performance begins, D’Angelo’s soothing voice washes over the viewer, preparing them for what will be a festive one hour and ten minute slow-burn. Dancers enter the stage one by one, and soon we are witness to a seduction, a confrontation, laughs, bickering, and moments of self-consciousness that read accurately to everyday life. The main characters, portrayed by Martell Ruffin and Catherine Kirk, depict a man set on dating a woman who, at first, rejects his advances. Though he isn’t the type of ‘established’ man she is looking for (one with a job, a car, and a 401k, as she laments in an earlier section of dialogue), she eventually gives in and allows him to take her on a date. From there, their story escalates into a romance, punctuated by off-stage monologues, fun group phrases, supporting romances, and the vibrant comedic moments of dancer Jae Neal created by snacking, dropping into the splits, or fighting animatedly with their significant other over trivial inconveniences.
Though “An Untitled Love” is a groovy and calm exploration, chock-full of lighthearted familial kindness, tenderness, comedy, and the zest of nostalgia, it doesn’t shy away from expressing devastation about the injustices faced by Black communities in the United States. Mimicking moments from Abraham’s past works, the dancers lie on the floor with their hands behind their backs as an excerpt from a 2020 interview with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers cuts through the melodic soundtrack. “They talk about fear when we’re the ones getting killed,” Rivers says, “… we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
From there, the tension continues with a tumultuous duet between the main couple and dissolves into a solo in which Ruffin displays gorgeous fast-twitch control, performing passionately from the heart. Suddenly, Neal interrupts, the group joins, and the gathering is back on. The work does not come full circle, but continues nicely along the meridian which it straddles throughout its entirety. As a whole, “An Untitled Love” is a warm pastiche that is nicely danced by a cast of beautiful, strong, and heavily trained dancers. With its melding of classical, contemporary, and street dance forms, easily digested storyline, moments of imperative social commentary, and expressive delivery, I highly recommend catching the last show this weekend, Saturday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland.
- For ticket information, Covid protocols (masks are not required, but are strongly encouraged), performance times, and details on the full season, visit the White Bird website.
I am grateful to Amy Leona Havin for the thoughtful clarity of this review, in which she makes me see what she saw, since I am unable to get to the Newmark to see the work with my own eyes.