Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco, CA; February 19, 2015
Dance makers and presenters fret that the younger generation is not interested in seeing dance. But twenty-somethings came in droves to see the West Coast premiere of Kyle Abraham’s “Pavement”, performed by his company, Abraham.In.Motion.
Abraham’s unique fusion of ballet, hip-hop and contemporary dance may have been a draw, or perhaps it was his pedigree as the recipient of a Bessie Award, a Princess Grace Award, a Ford Fellowship, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award and a 2013 MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. A youthful 38, Abraham comes across as humble, warm and, of great importance in the social-media age, accessible; his childhood training as a classical cellist and pianist is expressed in a deep musicality rather than in academic distance. Probably all of those elements contribute to the rising tide currently lifting Abraham’s career (recent bona fides include a New York Live Arts residency and an Alvin Ailey commission).
But “Pavement” has tragic new relevance in light of recent killings of black men by white men, often police, in the United States (some crimes alleged, others proven). A dance interpretation of the 1991 John Singleton film “Boyz N the Hood” and W.E.B. DuBois’s 1903 essay collection “The Souls of Black Folk”, the 2011 “Pavement” examines life and violence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s, historically black neighborhoods of Homewood and the Hill District, where Abraham grew up. “Pavement” is abstract dance-theater, yet it resonates with “Boyz’s” themes: the friable loyalties of youth, world-weary children yearning for stability in a threatening environment, insults avenged with gunfire, tragedy waiting around familiar corners. “Boyz” was about black men murdering other black men, but the losses are senseless in either case, and a solution has yet to be found.
The 50-minute piece plays out on an auditorium floor, transformed into an urban basketball court with gray marley, orange gaffers’ tape, a backboard and hoop and a cyclone fence. Dressed casually in T-shirts and tank tops, khaki pants, cargo shorts and plaid overshirts, six men (including Abraham) and one woman enter and exit, meet, mingle, grapple and hug. Fights break out, romance catches fire and fizzles out. An early sequence of 1990s hip-hop moves sets the piece back in the day, but most of the movement is contemporary ballet – grands pas de chats are a repeated motif, as are liquid pirouettes with arms swirling overhead – performed by immensely gifted dancers who move with such intense ease that one believes they really are just walking to the corner store.
Another repeated motif, of which much has been made in earlier reviews of “Pavement,” entails one dancer holding another dancer’s hands behind his back and guiding him to the floor, as though placing him under arrest. Apparently the phrase arose during company improvisation and had no symbolic meaning at the time, but in light of current events, it’s impossible to watch white males (two of A.I.M.’s male dancers are white) place black males into that posture without a shudder. A dancer might fall into the position in response to gunshots in the soundtrack, or lie that way through two or three following segments, like a body abandoned at a crime scene. Death is ever present in this neighbourhood.
Audio clips from “Boyz” overlay the soundtrack of classical oratorio, hip-hop beats and house music. Since “Pavement” is apparently plotless, Abraham presumably chose the film segments most compelling to him personally; certainly, the opening dialog from the movie, during which schoolchildren discuss the neighborhood’s latest shooting, and the harrowing emotion of the character Ricky’s death scene, make the abstraction painfully concrete. Judicious spoken-word has effects both amusing (that Bel Biv Devoe reference sure came out of left field) and heart-rending, such as Abraham screaming “Help me!” over and over, illuminated only by flashing red police lights.
Abraham cites Merce Cunningham as an influence, and while “Pavement” courses with emotion, a vein of Cunningham discipline runs through the deceptively offhand-looking movement. It’s most obvious during a duet to trance-y tones, during which two men maintain perfect unison in their elongated pauses, passés and writing turns without so much as a glance toward one another. The dancers feel this work deeply, and the movement emanates from within them; Abraham has a keen eye for talent and has matched them beautifully in their discipline, physicality and expressiveness.
“Pavement” ends, as I suppose it must, sadly. In an evocative but overlong scene, bodies lay atop bodies, hands behind their backs, while Sam Cooke (another victim of gun violence) croons and video of an imploding skyscraper is projected onto the backboard of the basketball hoop. It seemed a shame to conclude all that finely wrought abstraction with such an on-the-nose finale. The end had come for me a few minutes earlier, when a dancer nonchalantly snacked on potato chips while sitting next to Abraham’s prone corpse, as though the loss of another young black life was as matter-of-fact as lunch. Today’s young audience can relate.