With the International Association of Blacks in Dance 2016 “Black Dance Rising Conference and Festival” under way, the national dance community has gathered in Denver. Chief among the professional companies is Abraham.In.Motion, based in New York and led by current City Center Fellow and 2013 MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham. Let the punctuation in the company’s name be signposts of its deliberation, its control, its way of interrupting in the best of ways.
A.I.M. was originally slated to open their performance with the Colorado premiere of When the Wolves Came In, a tribute to Max Roach’s historic protest album, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, launched three years before the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that Abraham describes as “an evaluation of rights perceived through his experience and expressed through his art.” Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In “was created to live in a skin well aware of cyclical hardships of our history and the very present fear of an unknowable future.” But due to injury, the company performed The Quiet Dance instead.
At first, I was very disappointed. The description of When the Wolves Came In in the Newman Center program had me, after the first sentence, requesting to review the show from my seat last October. But, as with most things in life, if you accept them as they are, you can find yourself pleasantly surprised and even pleased with the new reality. The Quiet Dance was indeed quiet with no music for the first several minutes. In the John Cage-like “silence,” a symphony of human sound could be heard: the soft slide of the soloist Catherine Ellis Kirk’s feet on Marley, the creak of fold down seats, coughs and sniffles and throat-clearings. When the music finally does come into play, that first note jolts not because it’s loud or inharmonious but because it sounds so contrived, so unnatural. Meanwhile, other dancers join Kirk on stage, dressed in cool, silvery tones compared to her buttery ones. The dancers move at times with the glacial pace of sloths and at others with the languidness of a dream but always with utmost control and the faintest hint of urgency suppressed like a coiled spring. Even when Kirk appears to move epileptically across the stage, she regains full composure so quickly as to make you think you imagined her momentary convulsions.
The second work, Hallowed, begins with three pendant lights dropping one by one from the ceiling that bob and bounce and swing themselves to near stillness over the course of the work. The backdrop, black, white and blue, is like being inside a cumulonimbus cloud. Bertha Gober’s soulful “I Told Jesus” fills the theater. In a split-front top and loose pants, Jeremy “Jae” Neal takes the stage. His muscular and chiseled torso announce his athleticism, but it’s instantly clear from his fluidity and seamless transitions that versatility is his real strength. He appears, like a chameleon, to change from a decrepit old man into a pop god to a diva in a single breath. Melding hip-hop with jazz and modern and Samba, Abraham creates a whole new yet completely familiar language. Two female dancers join Neal on stage, echoing his metamorphoses through time and space as Cleo Kennedy’s “City Called Heaven,” recorded live at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala in 1963 during a Civil Rights Mass Meeting, plays.
The final work of the night, The Gettin’, takes South Africa’s Apartheid as its central theme. Karen Young’s intricately patterned dresses reminded me of a photography exhibit at the Denver Art Museum a few years ago, Common Threads: Portraits by August Sander & Seydou Keïta. Black and white journalistic photos and videos appear on the backdrop: larger-than-life “Whites Only” and “Non-Whites Only” texts, throngs of people with fists raised, a child’s limp body in the arms of an overalled man. The dancers move across the stage like a bee colony, circling and swarming, contracting and expanding like its own kind of muscle. Neal and another male dancer act as foils of one another and the embodiment of racial tensions, caught as they are in an intimate yet brutal tangle of wills. Penda N’Diaye, a Denver native and a former company member of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, bursts across the stage with the same raw, relentless passion made physical as the protesters pictured on the screen behind her.
Artists like Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion ask us to acknowledge how much is left to do to eradicate the “terrible resonance” of systemic racism and the “poly-phobic society of our current times.” Art, it seems to me, is the best and perhaps only way we’ve developed to gain real empathy, acceptance, and tolerance for one another. I’m glad there are artists as talented, creative, and rigorous as Kyla Abraham to lead the way to greater understanding.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.