Dallas — TITAS patrons are in for a stellar year, judging from organization’s first two offerings. Twyla Tharp wowed audiences back in September with her 50th anniversary tour, and the whirlwind of an innovative and eclectic dance-only season continues with Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, who made his North Texas debut Friday at Dallas City Performance Hall with a live music performance.
Winner of numerous awards and accolades, the much-sought after choreographer has enjoyed immense success since Dance Magazine named him one of their “25 to Watch” in 2009, including setting choreography for the Ailey company and collaborating with ballet star Wendy Whelan. His movement style illustrates his diverse background by taking the emotional explosiveness and physicality of hip-hop and melding it with classical technique and contemporary/modern vocabulary.
Audiences were eased into that honest, volatile quality with a smooth jazz pre-show performance from the live band, featuring Kris Bowers on the keyboard, Otis Brown III with the drums, Burniss Earl Travis II supplying the bass, and Charenee Wade’s delicious vocals. Then, instead of blasting the audiences with his fiery vocabulary, Abraham instead chose a subtle build-up with The Quiet Dance.
The piece opens in silence, as lights gradually rise over soloist and Booker T. Washington alum Catherine Ellis Kirk. Slow, deliberate movement and liquid arms mesmerize and provide a quietly suspenseful moment. As she speeds up, distinct patterns begin to emerge characteristic of contemporary dance, such as arms that arc before carving inward and flipping out. Others enter the space, separated from Kirk yet in unison. The maneuvers look like something we’d expect from the descriptions of the company, with limbs extending in all directions and complex transitions, but are performed as if someone hit the slow-motion button.
Bowers transcribed and provides the delicate piano strains with Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”, as played by Bill Evans, and most of the choreography repeats in some variation throughout the rest of the work. It’s nothing virtuosic in the typical sense, but the nice, introspective quality leaves one with a peaceful sense at the end of the dance.
The mood abruptly shifts with the world premiere of Absent Matter, Abraham’s heated reaction to cultural appropriation and partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Naima Ramos Chapman provides the video design, which appears on two white backdrops vertically overlapped so that dancers can enter and exit between. Bowers and Brown composed and performed the music, with a few recorded segments from Common, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar.
Opening movements, with Abraham and Jeremy “Jae” Neal, tend towards simple weight shift, albeit with a tense yet controlled passion. Maneuvers increase in range and intensity, and the dancers fill the stage, even though only four bodies appear in the space at one time. Torso undulations and frantic patterns convey increasing frustration, while extensions and arabesques scream as loud as any voice would, proving Abraham’s impressive skills as a movement linguist. Bouncing, hopping choreography only increase as the piece moves forward, yet the dancers never show a sense of fatigue. Moments of stillness break up the frenzy, adding to the emotional peak.
Various artistic choices throughout the work make one ponder their meanings, the depth of its significance, or if any is intended at all. Dan Scully’s set and light design includes not only the backdrops, but a set of light panels behind which look like small windows when lit up. The light changes from a golden yellow to a brighter white, but not all panels illuminate at the same time.
In a more obvious move, backstage crew members intermittently come on stage to take up panels of the floor, which are laid upstage to downstage, rather than the traditional right-to-left pattern. They leave the pieces in heaps against the backdrop, which creates a fascinating visual against the dancers and projections, but places the audience in a state of perplexity. Does this have a specific meaning, is the viewer left to create his/her own interpretation, or does the bold gesture simply add another visual to the fervor of the work? Whatever the answer, the dance begs multiple viewings to assimilate its layers.
The final work, The Gettin’, brings the full band on stage, performing music from We Insist!, also known as Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite), as interpreted by Robert Glasper. Set designer Glen Ligon utilizes inkblot-style patterns on the backdrop, which partially obscure some of Scully’s video design, as if mimicking our own filters that affect our view of events. Images and video throughout the work mostly come from apartheid-era South Africa, with a few from current events, such as the death of Eric Garner in NYC.
Wade sails through smooth vocals, scatting, and almost screaming at times. Relying on mostly solos, duos, and trios, the more varied vocabulary and qualities mirror the emotions of the video and vocals. At times, the choreography looks like ballet, but then the dancers fling their bodies in a decidedly Afro-Caribbean manner. Similar jumping patterns repeat in this one, adding in several turns initiated by circular arm patterns. Towards the end, Abraham pulls out more surprises as he mixes krumping and modern dance, with the dancers finding a delectable groove before switching to more technical movements.
Again, certain choices appear that make one question the intentionality and depth, this time in casting. One male duet finds the two dancers performing unison movement yet wary of each other, while another coupling has them obviously friendly. In the first, one dancer is African-American and the other Caucasian, while the other duet contains two African-American dancers. Is the skin color of the dancers significant, given the racial messages of this dance and the previous, or just an inadvertent consequence of Abraham’s culturally diverse company?
It’s questions like these and others that make this company so intriguing to watch. They appease the audience’s appetite for virtuosity, while bringing out the inner philosopher, making the evening’s happenings linger long after the curtain goes down.