Marking Freedom’s Progress Through Dance

Just days before the 50th anniversary of the historic American Civil Rights Movement march in Selma, Alabama, known as “Bloody Sunday,” Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion’s March 5, performance at The Moore Theatre served as a powerful reminder: Western society has come a long way in the march for freedom. But we have a long way to go before we can truly overcome bigotry and injustice.

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Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion at the Moore Theater
Photo by Jerry and Lois Photography

The evening was titled When the Wolves Came In—the same name as the first of Abraham’s three dances. Partially inspired by an iconic 1960 protest album, “We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” Abraham called the program a historic homage to 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 20 years after the abolishment of Apartheid in South Africa. His views are influenced by the “privileges and limitations” of being a black, gay, American male.

It was unclear what specific role race played in Abraham’s first piece, When the Wolves Came In (set to choral music by Nico Muhly—a gorgeous contrast with the kitschy Marge-Simpson-style beehive wigs worn by some of the dancers). Three black women, clearly “the wolves,” not only by their matching outfits and wigs, but also by their animalistic crawling, were grouped together. The two Asian dancers, a male and a female, were also grouped together in nude briefs/bras and blonde beehives; three separate dancers, all male, each had a totally unique look. Abraham seemed to be grappling with the question of “what does it mean to be free?” Positions of power and subservience were reconstructed again and again as the dancers manipulated one another. When Catherine Ellis Kirk’s beehive wig was pulled off at the end, her long brown braids flowing down her back, it was unclear if her stare into the audience was one of vulnerability or defiance.

Throughout the evening, the dancers dipped into a “postmodern gumbo,” as Abraham called it in the post-show Q&A. He draws inspiration from the swing years to hip-hop, as well as modern dance and ballet. Big shapes and movements like arabesques and jetés were fluidly connected by subtle “found gestures.” It was exciting to see the dancers embody pedestrian moments with such clarity, from old ladies at church on a Sunday, to kids krumping in the street. It helped Abraham’s cause to work with dynamos such as dancer Jeremy “Jae” Neal, who exuded dramatic prowess; Tamisha Guy, who let movement drip off her bones like honey; and Connie Shiau, who commanded the stage like a soldier, leaping with pizazz and abandon.

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Hallowed by Kyle Abraham
Photo by Ian Douglas

Abraham’s dancers moved like shadow-people: by the time one’s eye caught up to a dancer, his or her limbs had already slithered and settled into the next step. This was especially true of the show’s second work, Hallowed, the most effective and well-constructed in the program, as well as the only piece featuring an all-black cast. As Neal stood in front of a stormy backdrop, one-by-one, three ceiling lamps dropped from above, bouncing eerily before finding stillness (and, given the context, conjuring a disturbing image of hanging bodies. Unseen by the audience, photos of lynching victims were actually pinned to the lamps). One-by-one is also how the other two dancers entered the space, eventually resulting in a tightly-configured, triangle of vogue-ing, popping and locking bodies. Everyone wore matching dark jumpsuits. While the choreography was often minimal, Hallowed made a strong impact. The dancers’ upward gazes and bound quality was striking, and gave the effect of longing against a musical score of church sermons and music referenced in the Civil Rights Movement during the ‘60s.

After these two more restrained pieces, Abraham’s dancers finally got to fly across the stage in The Gettin’ set to original music by Grammy Award-winning jazz artist Robert Glasper. This was the most literal way to bring Apartheid and The Civil Rights Movement to the audience—the dancers wore old-fashioned costumes set against multimedia ranging from those historic struggles to present day. At one point, the brutal murder of Eric Garner was projected on two male dancers’ bare backs. The multimedia component (as well as the black-and-white backdrop of abstracted KKK members by Glenn Ligon) allowed the viewer to make instant connections across time, from the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till for allegedly flirting with a white woman, to the string of tragic deaths prior to #BlackLivesMatter and beyond. This mix of past and present forced the viewer to contend with the fact that the need for progress is sometimes a matter of life and death.

By the end of the night, nothing had been solved; no solution to racism, hatred or inequality found. But When the Wolves Came In delivered a powerful evening that found ways of speaking to all, or, at least, to many. An audience member commented, “It’s like he gets the point across without stuffing it down your throat.” The giddy atmosphere in the theater showed that, whatever the evening lacked in terms of coherence or organization, Abraham.In.Motion offered compelling dance-theater, as well as serious food for thought.

To learn more about When the Wolves Came In and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion see the company’s website.