Brooklyn Academy of Music: The Harvey Theater
February 23, 2022
An Untitled Love
Kyle Abraham’s latest creation for his own company, A.I.M (Abraham In Motion), opened its run Wednesday night at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “everything-old-is-new-again” Harvey Theater in front of a sold-out house and a captivated audience. When the curtain came down on this roughly hour-long piece, the house exploded into a vociferous standing ovation, a response that Abraham echoed when he introduced his cast and gushed over the fact that finally, after four years of creative attention (and apparently some out-of-town dry runs), An Untitled Love made it to New York and the theater at which he’d dreamed of presenting it. His joy was palpable, and he seemed barely able to keep his feet on the stage floor.
Like the opening-night audience here, I too have gushed over Abraham’s work: specifically the recent pieces that he created for New York City Ballet and for Fall for Dance 2021, in large part because of the universality of the emotions and the messages therein presented, as well as their significance. I anticipated having the same response to An Untitled Love despite a reference in publicity materials that appeared to limit the piece to being “Abraham’s creative exaltation of Black love and unity.”
But An Untitled Love is a different theatrical animal from those most recent dances that I raved about. It’s an hour-long visualization of one particular aspect of African-American life within a particular generational group and a primarily urban context, all for the purpose of recognizing and celebrating it. It’s exactly as described: no more, and no less.
This intentional limitation doesn’t affect the dance’s quality, but it does temper its significance.
Before I go further, however, a critical critical observation. I wrote previously in connection with Abraham’s creation for Fall for Dance 2021, Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song, that I can’t possibly fully understand the African-American experience, and I suppose that no one who is not African-American can. Although An Untitled Dance is not – at least not directly – about the African-American experience, its movement qualities are unavoidable consequences of that experience. I’m also considerably older than most anyone else I saw in that opening-night audience, which creates a double critical handicap. The effect is like being invited to a party only to find that you don’t really belong, and consequently to watch everyone else have a great time from an emotional distance. This has an inevitable impact on my descriptions of the movement nuts and bolts that I saw. That being said, I will comment more generally on what I saw, and provide my critical reasction to the content of the dance as it, and on Abraham’s skill in presenting his vision, however limited in scope that might be.
And with one or two caveats that I’ll address later, that critical reaction is highly positive. Whether one likes, can understand, and/or can appreciate what is being displayed, Abraham’s skill at displaying it is manifest.
Choreographed to songs by R&B composer D’Angelo, whose style is frequently referred to as “neo-soul,” An Untitled Love appears to take its name from a single from D’Angelo’s 2000 album Voodoo: “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” The single, purportedly a tribute (or an extended reference) to Prince, has been described as “the best make-out performance of all time,” and was publicized by a controversial music video of D’Angelo singing his song naked. The song won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
The association of the dance and its title with this song is solely my invention – it’s one of the several D’Angelo songs curated to accompany this piece. But the connection seems too obvious to ignore. Be that as it may, the songs are appropriate – perhaps essential – as background for Abraham’s visual descriptions of a Black iteration of the mating game, updated for millennials.
The piece opens with a woman entering from the wings who immediately walks upstage to gaze at the backdrop – or, more likely, to look beyond it as if looking through a metaphoric window. Another woman enters and sits on a couch, mid-stage left. She’s joined shortly thereafter by a man who she apparently was expecting. They’re soon joined by other members of the cast either singly or in pairs, and what appeared at first to be a casual meeting turns into something more substantial. They might have gathered at a playground, or as invitees to a party (I’d guess the latter because of the presence of the couch, but the upstage scrim, bearing what might be seen as chalk drawings of words and objects related to the dance’s subject matter, leads to the former), or both, since the specific location of certain scenes seems, due to background and lighting changes, to be fluid. Regardless, it’s clearly a social gathering during which people interact, change partners, flirt, and otherwise engage in social rituals, with D’Angelo’s songs making it clear that the real purpose here is to go beyond the social rituals we see.
As the piece evolves, cast members weave their way on and off stage, and in and out of focus, and the focus itself changes from one group or pair to another. In addition to pairing, however briefly, and then changing partners and then changing back, groups of dancers – and individual dancers somewhat sequentially – briefly band together in small groups that suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear, including groups or individuals who quietly sit and watch, and maybe admire, another character’s style. At times pairs of characters are given opportunities for more detailed dance expressions, but no one sequence dominates that action very long. And although the interactions among the party attendees include expressions of emotion, they’re unavoidable, and fleeting.
Effectively, even though it’s camouflaged by its specific context, An Untitled Love depicts dances at a gathering with a markedly different ambiance and style than others, but dances at a gathering nonetheless.
But An Untitled Love differs from your standard operating examples of such social gatherings even beyond the fact that it takes place within a Black cultural environment. Each of the countless social interactions portrayed is actively choreographed: that is, none of the stage characters engages in typical social-gathering small-talk. Rather, the individual, pair, and group “conversations” are conveyed in the form of “dance-talk”: movement that starts, stops, and shifts focus and characters at the drop of a hat or a change in the music’s beat.
There’s always something going on in this dance, and although at times I couldn’t tell who was conversing with / flirting with / trying to hook up with whom, the stage animation (including the ceaselessly entertaining manner in which Abraham populates the stage), the variety of ways with which he choreographs his characters’ actions second-by-second, and his ingenuity in moving the imagery along, all set An Untitled Love apart. No one cast member stands still beyond a few seconds, but there’s never a sense of loss of coherence. Regardless of what one thinks of the musical background, the action portrayed, or the styles of movement depicted, and regardless of how the movement is described (slinky; smooth, soulful, showing off to make an impression, veiled aggression), it’s incontrovertible that it proceeds masterfully.
Abraham wisely, and liberally, peppers the piece with comic references: the inebriated character who can’t avoid falling backward off the couch; women seated on the couch who move in and out of humorously presented synchronized movement (mimicking a singing group’s choreographed “moves”) ; extensive periods of slow motion movement that break actions down to mini-movements that emphasize the superficial, and sometimes humorous, interactions; and spoken words – perhaps parts of the songs, but it didn’t come across that way – that verbalize recognizable, and mostly humorous, character traits. [One offstage female character can be heard (intentionally) talking to herself as if talking to a male companion, and as remembered saying: “You have to take all of me; you can’t take part of me at a discount.” Priceless.] Although these moments convey a patina of superficiality (not in a pejorative sense) that naturally permeates such gatherings, they also provide an unmatched degree of authenticity.
However, well into the party atmosphere, and rather abruptly, the mood changes. The dancers leave the stage, and the locale shifts to one particular apartment (or the same one without the party), and one woman can be heard preening and talking to herself (and the audience). The woman (Catherine Kirk) soon appears, apparently dressed for a night on the town. [She may have been the same dancer who initially appeared and stared out the window, at the dance’s outset, but I’m not certain.] A man (Martell Ruffin), presumably her date (if such word is still in vogue) enters. There’s a lengthy period of non-verbal conversation, and then Kirk’s character suddenly exits, to Ruffin’s immense distress. Ruffin then dances an extensive, and tormented, solo that effectively visualizes his agony – performed with all the emotional content that was largely absent from the dance until then. Ruffin’s performance here is magnificent. Then suddenly, magically, Kirk reappears looking like she’d reconsidered her decision to leave, to Ruffin’s relief (and to audience cheers), and the stage goes dark – as if Abraham is telling his audience that in the end, the connections between people, however superficial they may initially appear, have consequences that are anything but superficial, and that can cut to the bone.
This, as much if not more than the superficiality of the casual social get-togethers described until this scene, appeared to be a statement that takes the piece beyond merely a choreographed vision of a social gathering. It’s a statement universal in its appeal, and what I thought Abraham may have been getting at.
To me, that’s where the piece should have ended, and from their response, the audience thought it did.
But then the lights come back on and the “party” resumes – or we’re taken to a different one – this time with the characters dancing more extensive solos and duets as if to highlight their break and hip-hop talents rather than to move any semblance of a narrative forward. The dancing was very well done, but it came across as an anti-climax that diminished the intensity of the prior scene, converting it into something of an “aside” having considerably less significance.
Other than this positive / negative observation, I have one additional concern. At one point in the course of the dance comments are made (as far as I could tell, not attributable to any particular character) that appear to place the piece squarely in the context of the overall African-American experience. These comments, piped through the theater’s speakers, briefly reference the denial of rights and the murders of young Black men, and stating (not a direct quote, but close): “while we keep loving this country, this country doesn’t love us back.” I don’t take issue with the statements at all, but with their place in this dance. Whether Abraham here is simply expressing another aspect of “Black love,” or is saying something that he wants to emphasize lest audience members forget, it comes out of the blue. Just as the Kirk / Ruffin scene has less significance when seen as a severable part of the whole rather than as a punctuated end-point, delivering such statements in this manner makes them carry less significance than they should.
Regardless of these observations, the A.I.M dancers all danced brilliantly. In addition to Kirk and Ruffin, the two who carried the dance from beginning to end with noteworthy characterizations and choreographic execution were Tamisha A. Guy and Claude “CJ” Johnson. Jae Neal was a visually dominating and often comic character who was “different.” The remaining dancers also delivered first-rate work: Logan Hernandez and Keerati Jinakunwiphat, who were often featured both individually and as a pair; Dorchel Haqq and Gianna Theodore (most of the time paired with other), and Donovan Reed. And a nod to Dan Scully’s scenic and lighting design, which kept the action looking multi-textured and unusual.
Overall, though not as universal in its appeal or as significant as other recent Abraham dances, An Untitled Dance is nonetheless further evidence of Abraham’s choreographic ability. For that reason alone, aside from its other merits, it should not be missed when it returns to the New York area.