There is something to be said about witnessing an artist, who has received the incredible amount of support Kyle has, materialize an idea into a fully produced performance with beautifully tailored costumes, a standout musical performance, and subtle yet, incredibly powerful video footage. As a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and New York Live Arts’ 2012-2014 Resident Commissioned Artist, Kyle Abraham was offered a salary, health benefits, two years of residency time and a commission of a new work to premiere at New York Live Arts. Abraham in return created a work that overflows with stimuli–a post-modern sensibility that gives his concept the bit of edge it needs.
His latest work, When the wolves came in, is a tryptich of three dances revolving around lineage, identity, and racist politics. The work is one of two presented during his season at New York Live Arts, both of which were inspired by the jazz album and civil rights statement “We Insist! Max Roach’s ‘Freedom Now Suite.’ ” The movement, however, is ambiguous. Although politically charged, it carries a certain casualness that doesn’t make its reading explicit.
The first dance in the tryptich was named after the evening’s title, bringing Abraham’s contemporary issues to another more natural world. The dancers were fitted in luxurious beehive wigs and minimalist dancewear, within a set of crisp white, evoking a futuristic take on the era of Louis the XIV. Groups of three to four performers watched one another like enemy wolf packs about to attack. Tension reigned. One of the more charged moments involved a white male dancer bringing an African-American female dancer to her hands and knees and walking her like a dog. These relationships developed and became more humane, but a bitter taste from those moments remained.
The second dance, “Hallowed”, was the most minimalist yet most compelling of the evening, set to the music of gospel recordings by two Civil Rights movement vocalists, Cleo Kennedy and Bertha Gober. Paired with Abraham’s relaxed yet utterly fresh style, it was impossible to listen to these recordings and not feel it in your bones.
The trio featured two female and one male dancer in navy blue jumpsuits. The work wasn’t about gender roles but rather about people. The equal strength in Abraham’s sensual yet brusk movements underlined this focus. Though there is repetition of his staple movements, such as rippling from the head through the torso and sliding on the floor with one leg in arabesque as though the body were fighting something, Abraham got away with it without fatiguing us because the cool factor they bring doesn’t grow old.
“The Gettin’ ” began with music alone, played by Mr. Glasper (piano), Vicente Archer (bass) and Otis Brown III (drums), with Charenee Wade vocals. Though the music for this final section revolved around slavery, the dancing broke free. The piece was incredibly fast paced and specific moments were hard to distill, yet two moments carried resonance. One of them was a duet between Jeremy Jae Neal and Matthew Baker in which they slowly took off their shirts facing the projection of violent scenes from the apartheid while Wade screamed into the microphone. Amidst the larger chaos of the work, the juxtaposition of calm movement plastered on loud music and visuals was incredibly powerful. In addition, two powerful solos featured Tamisha Guy and Connie Shiau. Both women struck out from the work in their outstanding physical abilities presenting themselves as groundbreaking activists in Abraham’s world.
Though his messages were not always self evident there was a unique and transgressive boldness to Abraham’s choreography and overall production that make him an exciting artist for the dance world to support and follow.