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My mom was always quick with a comeback to any complaint of minor injury or injustice. They ranged from the disgusted, “I’ll slap a smile on your face,” to the sardonic, “Be careful you might just crack a smile, I would hate to see that,” to the practical, “Be the better person.” While these quips were not appreciated in the present, I can understand their value now. Sometimes the external can influence the internal just enough to turn the tide. Sometimes a decision about perception has to be made before any change can be perceived. Choreographer Kyle Abraham clearly carries within him the memories of some tough love–if only vicariously from watching Laurence Fishburne, the wise-beyond-his-years father in Boyz in the Hood, dole out life-saving advice to Tre–and seeks to pass it on through his choreography. Pavement, based on Boyz, created a landscape at Harlem Stage where every puffed up posture belied desperation, detention, or wrongful death. But by the curtain call, a glimmer of hope remained; the possibility of reaching a deeper collective conscience and confidence, through the discipline of positive perception and a willingness to be part of the solution.

The film, made in 1991 begins with two statistical quotes: “One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime” and “Most will dies at the hands of another Black male.” In the year 2012, “according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” Pavement seemingly addressed these facts up front with a partnered movement phrase that ended with a dancer prone, hands twisted behind the back. They get up only to repeat it, over and over, until one man was left alone onstage wrestling with himself. This image resonated throughout the piece and met an ambivalent end in Abraham’s final tableau of three piles of arrested dancers. Was it the sad, inevitable body count, or a communal act of mercy, representing a will to finally give up violence and self-destructive tendencies? I can only understand this image as twofold; a willingness to acknowledge history on the one hand, coupled with a belief in the need and potential of another renaissance.

Photo by Steven Schreiber.

With a strong sense of concept, Abraham revolved with ease between opposites: narrative and abstraction, soft and hard, the past and present. Even the opera music that accompanied much of the dancing had an edge of conflict, sung as it was by counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky, a man who could be mistaken vocally for a woman. The movement sequences held together the emotional narrative while the theatrical moments that alternated were moodier, creating a fog for discrimination and disassociation to get caught in. Though this seventy minute work took on such big social justice themes, it was also a seemingly intimate portrait of the artist as an outsider, caught in his own contradictions.

Abraham makes great use of the classical vocabulary within his modern aesthetic. But in Pavement, the recurring first position port de bras was just a vessel for loss. The fingers came towards each other but the dreams were only caught momentarily before slipping through two round arms. An arabesque became the quickest way out, especially coupled with a gliding drag back. The dancers were so proficient that it often seemed they held back to remain inside the confines of the small stage. There was no cathartic breaking out or breaking free, only breaking down. Angst initiated almost every step and encounter, with clipped gestures of head and epileptic twitches of the body foiling the clean shapes within the phrases. Moments of relief were only to be found in the tenderness of a couple duets. I was grateful Rena Butler’s generous wingspan, often swooping through the group on one knee, providing a calming influence in a cast of such unstable men.

Photo by Steven Schreiber.

In the dance theater episodes, some containing text, Pavement pounded on a theme of apathy. Abraham panhandled passersby for “a dollar or fifty cents….help me….we fam” and became increasingly distressed as the other dancers remain aloof. On repeat, his monologue spanned the range of annoying, humorous, sad, and eventually alarming. In a later scene, a dancer sat down to eat from a bag of chips in front of yet another prone body. His casual chomping manner–fulfilling a basic need in the middle of a wasteland (a basketball hoop and a chain link fence of a set)–and detachment was haunting. We did not know if these characters would be able to persevere but the audience was rooting for them, knowing that survival might involve more than just distancing themselves from the conflict.

Pavement was not just another story about other people’s problems. It was a call to investigate and invest in the whole. The few moments when my mind did wander, I was mostly thinking of one thing: get this man a bigger stage, a place where there is more space for his concepts and imagery to fully collide and steps to truly explode, a place where there is a bigger house for him to influence and change from the outside, in.

Written by Candice Thompson

After more than a decade in Brooklyn, Candice Thompson is now an Atlanta-based artist and writer. Prior to dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and ad hoc Ballet, she trained with Kee Juan Han at the School of Ballet Arizona and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She founded LOLAstretch Dancewear in 2000 and has designed costumes for a variety of theater and dance companies across the country. She recently received a masters degree in Literary Nonfiction from Columbia University’s Creative Writing Program and more of her dance writing can be found in the pages of Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Teacher.