The Curve, Leicester, UK; May 11, 2015

David Mead

Kyle Abraham in Pavement.  Photo Steven Schreiber

Kyle Abraham in Pavement.
Photo Steven Schreiber

Sometimes you hear so many good things about a work that when you finally get to see it, it fails to meet expectations. But every so often, along comes a piece like Kyle Abraham’s Pavement that doesn’t just live up to them, it goes way beyond.

For Pavement, Kyle Abraham goes back to 1991, his teenage years, and John Singleton’s film Boyz n the Hood, about gangs in South Central Los Angeles, reimagining the movie as a dance work set in Pittsburgh’s historically black neighbourhoods of East Liberty, Homewood and the Hill District where he grew up. It’s a potent and poignant reflection of the state of Black American communities in the two decades since.

Once the dance starts, references to 1991 are thin on the ground. There’s a hint of it in the costumes, but it could be today. And given recent events, what we see could definitely be today. Things have not moved on much, it seems.

Pavement takes place on a piece of ground defined by an orange square, a basketball hoop and backboard in one upstage corner. Steel fencing across the back completes the scene. Images projected onto the backboard – the orange square on it creating a link with that on the floor – create a sense of location, but never distract from the action going on below.

The action opens with Abraham himself dancing a graceful lush solo to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s blues What’s the Matter Now? His dance, full of expansive movement and basketball references, exudes a sense of confidence in the world. Before long he is joined by William Briscoe, but then trouble. Enter Eric Williams, who places Abraham face down on the floor, crossing his wrists behind his back as if handcuffing him. It’s done softly and tenderly, but the message is clear. It’s a scene repeated many times in the evening.

Abraham and Baker are black, Williams is white, and it is impossible to avoid the shadow of racial prejudice that hangs over the evening. Indeed Abraham refers to it in a quote in the programme from The Souls of Black Folk, a 1903 book by W. E. B. Du Bois, whose texts played an integral part of the struggle to combat racism in America, and who founded the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American leaders committed to the struggle for racial equality. And yet, in many ways that is not the point. Later cuffings include black on black, and even the dancers on themselves. Perhaps it’s what comes of being rooted in the British rather than American experience, but the message appears to be as much about the disadvantaged in society, and those who are or who feel suppressed in general, rather than any particular racial group; even that we all need support sometimes.

Pavement has no narrative, Abraham rather jumping from scene to scene, each picking out moments that reveal a new relationship. There is some more frenetic and contemporary movement but, surprisingly given the subject matter, the choreography is not hard-edged, aggressive or violent. much of it is clearly American postmodern technique inspired, with some balletic moments, and yet it never feels old-fashioned or tired as such dance can often be. There are more than a few interesting solo, duet (one between the tall Vinson Fraley and Tamisha Guy, the only female in the cast stands out) and ensemble dances. The latter in particular sweep across the stage with ease, limbs slicing through the air, bodies bending and undulating.

Abraham.In.Motion in Kyle Abraham's Pavement. Photo Steven Schreiber

Abraham.In.Motion in Kyle Abraham’s Pavement.
Photo Steven Schreiber

The cast of seven are uniformly polished and impressive, drawing you in throughout. They are pretty good actors too. Pavement has more than a few moments of roughhousing, fighting, fist bumps, and snippets of casual conversation. Dancers even walk on munching from huge bags of tortilla chips and crisps. Always they come and go naturally; never appearing forced, never oversold.

As much as their world is full of camaraderie and bravado, problems are never far away. The flowing dance often ends abruptly with gunfire, a police radio and distress.

Sometimes there is sadness and despair, no more so than when Abraham stands alone on a near dark stage, a red strobe suggesting the end of some police action. As the other dancers enter, he pleads repeatedly, “Come on, man, help me. You know me…” They walk past, barely glancing at him. Despiet the camaraderie, and like the cuffings, he is ignored. Such things have become part of the everyday scene. Life, as it is, goes on.

And it does sort of end back at the beginning, all seven dancers lying face down, some atop one another like corpses piled up. “Nothing changes” seems to be the message. But Abraham is not without hope. The music is Donny Hathaway’s Someday We’ll All Be Free:

Hang on to the world as it spins around
Just don’t let the spin get you down
Think of moving fast
Hold on tight and you will last
Give your self-respect, your manly pride
Get yourself in gear
Keep your stride
Never mind your fears
Brighter days will soon be here
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free

The rest of the music is eclectic in the extreme, running from Bach, Britten (Peter Grimes), Vivaldi and Handel (Carestini) through Jacques Brel, Sam Cooke and contemporary instrumental, to R&B.

Pavement certainly brings to the fore uncomfortable issues that need attention, where Abraham really wins is that it never feels like he is lecturing. Maybe it’s because the work is built from personal experience. Whatever, the way he subtly, slowly but surely drip feeds images and emotions is far more effective. He makes you think rather than merely react.

The inspiration may have come for the past, but Pavement is equally a thought-provoking dance of today, for today. The only shame is that this Leicester date is the only one in the UK.