A.I.M by Kyle Abraham
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

April 4, 2023
Uproot: love and legacy (world premiere), 5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?)(world premiere), MotorRover (world premiere), Rain, If We Were a Love Song

Jerry Hochman

Kyle Abraham and his company, A.I.M (Abraham in Motion), returned to the Joyce Theater Tuesday night for week-long run of a repertory program that included three world premieres and a company premiere. With one possible exception, it proved to be an exceptional evening of dance, and perhaps the finest overall A.I.M program I’ve seen to date.

For those who may have been on another planet, Abraham is a highly successful, MacArthur Award-winning choreographer whose work, in addition to those created for his own company, has been performed by (and choreographed on) contemporary dance and ballet companies world-wide. [His The Runaway, created for New York City Ballet, was included on my list of Tops in New York for 2018.]

To the extent a particular Abraham style can be extracted from those dances of his that I’ve seen, it’s what might be called expansive introspection: sweeping, powerful force in addition to an inner-driven luminosity that powers his individual and ensemble movement. These qualities were present in abundance in this program – in the pieces created by guest choreographers as well as his own. The evening included two world premiere pieces by Abraham, one by former A.I.M company member (2011-2014) and recent Princess Grace Award recipient Maleek Washington, and a reconstruction of Bebe Miller’s 1989 solo work Rain. A masterpiece that Abraham created in 2021 completed the program.

A.I.M in a prior performance
of Kyle Abraham’s “Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

I’ll consider the program in the order presented.

I’d not previously seen Washington’s work, but his Uproot: love and legacy, though not as clear as it might have been, is still a fine piece of choreography and vision.

The stage set replicates some sort of outdoor expanse: a plantation, which is what first came to mind, or perhaps the memory of a life in any country setting, or maybe a representation of some pre-plantation, pre-slavery imagined reality – or all of the above. Audience left is a lovely (albeit ersatz) flowering tree; audience right are what appear to be bales of hay. [Set design by Lee “SOEMS” Beard (with Washington’s collaboration); lighting by Dan Scully (who designed the lighting for each of the Abraham-choreographed pieces.] Combined with the costumes for the first two characters on stage [costume design by Bones Jones], one can feel the sultry air and sense the completion of a long day’s work in the field.

A couple, Tamisha A. Guy and Donovan Reed, are seen sitting in the field center stage. Reed’s character, costumed as one might expect a field worker to dress, gradually rises and dances languorously and seductively, in slowly oscillating movement matching the initial tone of the music (by KAMAUU & Kwinton Gray, and played live by both). Guy’s character, dressed in a colorful outfit that might be indicative of a higher station (or a more romantic reality), soon joins him. Their dance together, though sensual to a point, is more sweet than in any way salacious.

Soon, with an uptick in the music’s tempo, Catherine Kirk enters, followed by Jamaal Bowman. Kirk appears to entice Reed, and he separates from Guy, but the pairings are as fluid as the choreographic tone. If they’re instigators of some sort, it’s downplayed. The entry of Gianna Theodore changes the tone again, with her more flamboyant movement quality accompanying another uptick in the music’s tempo. Eventually Theodore’s character dances with Bowman in a manner that might be considered violent (he pulls her by her hair), but they resume whatever relationship they have despite – or maybe because – they both know that she can give as good as she gets. Eventually Reed and Kirk return, and the four of them move across the field to stand by the hay bales with Reed assuming the posture of the others, while Guy retreats, without animosity or any sense of loss, to the flowering tree.

A.I.M Dancers Catherine Kirk
and Donovan Reed
Photo by Tatiana Wills

It’s not clear to me what, if anything, all this is supposed to mean, except perhaps the lure of the contemporary over the traditional; or, given the dance’s title, the memory of a real or imagined previous life by a man (Reed’s character) who has been “uprooted.” But as I’ve mentioned many times before, particulars of the Black Experience are not something I can fairly address. Maybe others are able to see things differently; I can only see what I see. Given the “legacy” component of the dance’s title, Washington may be constructing an imagined African heritage that he (or the character portrayed by Reed) never knew and sees only in his mind; a beautiful fantasy vision, and fantasy relationship, but in the end something he’s unable to identify with.

I don’t know if that was Washington’s intent, or whether the dance illustrates a straightforward set of relationships that evolves as it does for no particular reason. But the dance’s meaning isn’t as important here as Washington’s choreography, which, at least judged by this piece, is (not surprisingly) very much consistent with Abraham’s. That is, it looks inside as well as outside: it’s broadly conceived and expansively delivered, but without sacrificing the sense of the individual. Despite what I see as an absence of clarity (which may simply be a problem of not being in a position to recognize what may be obvious to others), Uproot: love and legacy is a promising piece of work. Each of the A.I.M dancers delivered compelling characterizations.

I’m tempted to skip over 5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?) for reasons that I’ll explain below, but I’ll resist that temptation – to a point.

Four dancers (three appearing male, one female, though I suspect gender here is irrelevant), most frequently divided into two couples, dance exuberantly to unidentified music by Jerrilynn Patton (known professionally as Jlin). [The music may have been composed originally for this piece; the program is silent as to that.]

As I watched the brief piece evolve (it lasts literally five minutes), that exuberance brought to mind the exuberance of individual couples dancing on the old American Bandstand TV show (talk about culture clash!) – but the choreography here, had it been available at the time, may well have been danced out of camera range. The piece is filled with Abraham’s signature movement qualities of expansive, broadly-executed, sweeping movement, interspersed with slinky undulations that run from head to toe and all points in between, all executed to Jlin’s most-often gently percussive electronic music, and with the dancers at all times in constant motion.

But that’s all there is. As presently set, it’s a dance exhibition – a fine one – and an exhibition of the talents of the four dancers (Keerati Jinakunwiphat, Kar’Mel Antonyo Wade Small, Keturah Stephan, and Gianna Theodore). [Note that the program is unclear with respect to participating dancers. It may well be that a second row of dancers listed in the program, guest student artists from the Gloria Kaufman School of Dance at USC, Class of ’24, participated also (as opposed to appearing as a second cast at certain performances), but I recall seeing no more than four dancers on stage at a given time. It’s possible that the student dancers were unannounced substitutes surreptitiously inserted from time to time to replace company dancers, but I think I would have noticed. So if they did participate, they performed so well that I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the company professionals.]

Abraham’s introductory program note states that the piece is one he began to investigate with A.I.M dancers and USC Kaufman students during his first semester there, and may possibly become part of a larger work. In a larger context, my opinion of it may change. Consequently, at least for now, I’ll consider 5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?) to be a work in progress, and evaluate it in more detail when its gestation period ends.

MotorRover is another matter. It’s also relatively short, but filled with nuance, movement variety, and self-deprecating humor. It’s fabulous, and was fabulously executed by Bowman and Reed (on other occasions during this run the roles were assumed by Guy and Kirk).

What’s strange about it, at least to me, is its genesis. In his introductory comments, Abraham states that MotorRover was commissioned in 2021 by Baryshnikov Arts Center in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Trust to create a work “in conversation” with Cunningham’s Landrover for a dance film adaptation titled “In Conversation with Merce.”  That film was completed, and Abraham’s dance premiered in that context. This performance at the Joyce was its stage premiere.

A.I.M Dancer Donovan Reed
Photo by Tatiana Wills

My conundrum is not whether this program was or wasn’t its world premiere, but that it represents a “conversation,” a “response,” by Abraham with respect to the Cunningham piece. Abraham admires Cunningham (as do many others); based on what I’ve seen (only a fraction of Cunningham’s output), I don’t share that. Perhaps I’ve seen unrepresentative Cunningham dances, or, I think more likely, I see Cunningham from a different point of view – as a member of the audience, not as a dancer/ devotee. So what I see as overly academic and sterile may be exactly what those who drink the kool-aid, impressive dancers all (and some critics) are looking for. [Save your emails; I’m kidding about the kool-aid.] With rare exception, and only based on what I’ve seen, his dances are as entertaining and/or intellectually challenging as watching grass grow. Even as to those Cunningham pieces that I like for whatever reason (and there have been a few), it’s still a display of the academic side of dance, the individual body-dynamics of it, the process, not dance theater. At most, these are dances that I can appreciate.

But maybe I’m just uninformed. After seeing Abraham’s dance, I tried to find Landrover on line, but found little more than automobile videos, a couple of videos of the piece that I was unable to access, a few very brief excerpts, a few interviews and commentaries, and a photo or two. So I regret being unable to provide a scholarly comparison, since I’d be dancing in the dark. But I have thoughts based on what I saw.

First, so it’s clear, I consider MotorRover to be one of the finest dances I’ve seen this year – because it’s as much akin to the Cunningham dances I’ve seen as a cinnamon raisin bagel is to an untoasted slice of Wonderbread. MotorRover is filled with stuff that makes it pleasurable to watch. Sure, a lot of it can be characterized as posing, but I didn’t see the rigidity that’s a component of that. On the contrary, I saw fluidity within a competition of sorts between the two dancers. I didn’t see sterility; on the contrary, I saw abundant imagery – and effort, drama, individuality, and humor. I didn’t see bodies posing in space and then moving to another position in order to pose in a different space; I saw exceptional dance theater. And I didn’t see a “conversation” with Cunningham, I saw a “response.” That the piece is performed without musical accompaniment didn’t matter – in that respect I saw exquisite timing and reaction to stimuli from one dancer to another. Even though MotorRover is limited to two dancers, I saw Robbins, not Cunningham.

Again, I must emphasize that I approach a performance from the point of view of an audience-member not as an academic, my knowledge of the Cunningham oeuvre is limited, and I recognize that others know a lot more about Cunningham than I do.

All this having been said (at regrettable length), Bowman and Reed execute Abraham’s magnificently (and independently) conceived choreography magnificently. To me, it’s far more Abraham than Cunningham. If there’s a “conversation” there, it’s one that demonstrates that a construction made of basic building blocks can be molded through the choreographer’s lens to create a work of dance theater art … which, in most respects, a successful contemporary dance (or ballet) is.

Rain is A.I.M’s reconstruction of a 1989 solo piece by Bebe Miller, whose work Abraham describes as speaking to the choreographer he hopes to be. I doubt that Abraham needs Miller or anyone’s input at this point in his career, but that aside, this particular piece speaks volumes.

I’ve not previously seen Miller’s work, but based on Rain, her choreography mines the same qualities of individual expression that Abraham’s does but lacks Abraham’s  variety, liquidity, and subtlety. That’s not a criticism, just an observation based on one dance. Nevertheless, Rain stings the way Abraham’s individual solos do, but in a different way.

When the curtain rises, the stage is set with a rectangular carpet-like object (roughly, maybe 12 ft. x 6 ft.) set center stage on the stage floor, with the longer dimension horizontal.  It appears to have dirty white color, as if it was an old mattress compressed over time with age and wear. The sole performer, Guy at this performance (she alternates with Kirk), stands in front of it, back to the audience, wearing a solid red costume and moving very slowly as if apprehensive about getting too close to whatever the carpet/ mattress-like object is supposed to represent.

After a period of apparently agonized silent movement, the music kicks in, and the movement becomes far more intense and dramatic; a combination of attraction and repulsion coupled with considerable emotional pain.

A.I.M Dancer Tamisha A. Guy
Photo by Tatiana Wills

I initially disliked the piece – not because of the choreography, but because of the extended disembodied nasal-like wail that comprises the initial vocalization in the piece. The sound was torture to listen to – but perhaps it was intended to be that way. [An aside: The music is a puzzlement to me. The nasal-ish wail I heard clearly seemed to be a woman’s voice. But in the program the music is credited as “original” composed by Hearn Gadbois, vocals by Jay Bolotin and and Rich Franko, with cello by Robert Een; and “additional” music by Heitor Villa-Lobos, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” vocals by Salli Terri; guitar Laurindo Almediathere. So I thought the sound had to have been made by Terri to the Villa-Lobos composition. I found an audio of it online, and the sound Terri makes bears no resemblance whatsoever to the wail I heard. On the contrary, the vocals for that piece are as one might anticipate – melodic, somewhat calming, and lovely to listen to. So perhaps the vocalist for the sound I initially heard was made by a male vocalist, even though in isolated context within the dance that makes no sense. But I was unable to locate a sample of the “original” vocals to confirm the source. I did, however, locate a video of Miller’s 1989 performance, in which the music was credited the same way, and the initial wail was exactly the same as I heard at Tuesday’s performance. Strange.]

But I got past the annoying wail, and gradually came to find brilliance in Miller’s choreography and Guy’s terrific execution. And because a component of the choreography showed Guy repeatedly spread-eagled on the stage floor, to me obvious sexual references made in a tortured rather than ecstatic fashion, coupled with the agonized, desperate movement in general, I thought the subject matter of Rain was a woman in deep pain over the end of a relationship by her partner’s death or betrayal or whatever. And until the final moments of the piece, Guy circled this “mattress” as if afraid to touch it for fear of reigniting the memories associated with it.

But after watching Miller’s original performance, I think I got that wrong. The “object” that Miller dances around in the video is green, and looks like a patch of grass rather than a blanket or compacted mattress. Maybe the color that I saw at A.I.M’s performance was a product of the lighting for this reconstruction and my position in the house. Regardless, if it was a green patch of grass, what I saw as sexual and relating to some sense of loss or betrayal takes on a very different possible meaning, less universal, but possibly more related to the African-American experience, including being barred from areas that had been reserved for whites, and ultimately, overcoming the sense of shame or fear, or anger and desperation, the character finally breaks through the barrier.

I don’t know whether either of these potential meanings is true, or neither, or whether the piece has no particular meaning at all. The torment that the audience sees is presented with absolute clarity, leaving a gaping hole in the heart. And Guy delivers an unforgettable performance – one of the highlights of this performance year.

(l-r) Donovan Reed and Jae Neal
in a prior performance of
Kyle Abraham’s
“Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

More clear, but equally unforgettable, is Abraham’s If We Were a Love Song. The piece premiered on the opening program of City Center’s Fall for Dance 2021, then titled Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song. [I don’t know the reason behind the title change – I don’t think the choreography changed. Maybe some thought it was confusing, or too limiting in scope.]  I won’t repeat in detail my review of that piece (included in my review of the full Fall for Dance 2021 season). Suffice it to say that If We Were a Love Song is another Abraham masterpiece, and although it undoubtedly reflects the African-American experience, it is told on an intensely personal level and in way that can be readily understood and appreciated by viewers of any background. It cuts to the core.

The piece is anchored by, and expressed through, six songs vocalized by Nina Simone in a way that incorporates and reflects that experience.  Simone’s art over the course of her career is reflected in different facets, but the emotion-laden delivery of these songs, which are not among Simone’s more well-known, is pure blues, and pure soul: a quiet wail that demands attention rather than one that invites revulsion.

A.I.M dancers in a prior performance
of Kyle Abraham’s “Our Indigo: If We Were A Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

When I saw the piece at its premiere, the focal point, for me, was the dance’s final song, which impressed me as a summary of a history of pain. At this performance the dance as a whole came across as more balanced, with each segment carrying equal weight. The opening song, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (a traditional ballad/ folk song associated with colonial and later music in the Appalachian Mountains and believed to have originated in Scotland), is here presented in an indisputably African-American context, as is the case with the other songs. It’s the only one of the six performed by the full ensemble of seven A.I.M dancers, and it sets the tone for the dances that follow, each of which is a gem: “Keeper of the Flame” (here danced by Jae Neal), “Little Girl Blue” (by Theodore), “Don’t Explain” (by Neal and Reed), “Wild is the Wind” (by Martel Ruffin), and “Images” (by Kirk). It’s unfair to single out a single one of them since each was choreographed and executed at an extraordinary level of expertise and emotion, but at this performance the individual segment that blew me away was Theodore’s execution of “Little Girl Blue” – a song written by Rodgers and Hart for the Broadway musical Jumbo, but that with Simone’s vocal interpretation here assumes an entirely different dimension.

Maybe the most significant aspect of If We Were a Love Song is that it demonstrates that a simple-seeming dance with a small footprint can carry a greater impact than those that attempt to make their point by beating their audience over the head with an anvil. At least in this context, persuasion is more powerful than raw power itself.

Overall, this is a superb program, and, more significantly, one that must be seen.