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Smooth as Silk, Strong as Steel

The style Kyle Abraham has honed over the years is unmistakable: a silken coordination of the body in which ripples and undulations pass through skin and sinew; an expressive use of the back; hands that touch, and really feel; impulses that start here but find their way there, and then there; a deep sensitivity to music coupled with an intelligent response to lyrics; a penchant for melancholy, leavened with sass. Abraham has a way of revealing his dancers to us without depriving them of mystery or coolness; he builds an atmosphere of intimacy, but something is held in reserve.

Performance

A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham: “Uproot: love and legacy,” “5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?),” “MotorRover,” “Rain,” “If We Were a Love Song”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, April 4, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Catherine Kirk in “Uproot: Love and Legacy” by Maleek Washington. Photograph by Steven Pisano

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In his company’s current stint at the Joyce, Abraham also shows skill as a programmer and company director. He certainly knows how to choose and cultivate his dancers. And as he has grown busier, creating works for New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet, and many others, he has opened his own small ensemble, A.I.M., to the works of other choreographers. In the Joyce program, one full-length piece and two shorter movement studies by Abraham alternate with a new work by a former company-member (Maleek Washington) and an older one by the veteran dancemaker Bebe Miler, “Rain.” The two additions are perfectly chosen; different enough from his own to create variety and contrast, but sharing a sense of purpose and seriousness. They are part of a continuum. The result is a program that feels like a harmonious whole, rendered more so by Abraham’s glorious dancers, each a marvel of through-the-body grace and individuality.

Donovan Reed in “MotoRover” by Kyle Abraham. Photograph by Steven Pisano

The newest work by Abraham, “5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?)” is more of a sketch than a full piece. Set under a bluish light and driven by an electronic pulse and grind, it is a study in counterpoint for four dancers, cool, detached, punctuated by vernacular gestures like a sliding walk, a hand jive, and a slithery roll of the shoulders. The short work that follows, “MotorRover,” is a response to Merce Cunningham’s 1972 pas de deux “Landrover,” created as part of a program imagined by the Cunningham Trust in 2021. The duet for two men or two women (I saw it performed by Jamaal Bowman and Donovan Reed), is full of Cunningham-esque tests of balance and control, a slow relevé followed by a perilous curve of the back, or tricky cantilevered partnering. To these tests of mettle, performed in silence, Abraham adds wrist-flips in which the fingers open up like flowers, a through-the-body wave, and a squat in which the dancers look knowingly out at the audience. In the end, they pose like Roman statues, one standing, the other crouching like an athlete in repose.

A.I.M in “If We Were a Love Song” by Kyle Abraham. Photograph by Steven Pisano

The most complete piece by Abraham here is “If We Were a Love song,” created during the pandemic in one of those “bubble” residencies in which dancers were able to work, isolated from the world. That may explain the piece’s slightly claustrophobic feel. Each section, set to a powerful and mostly sad song by Nina Simone, is like an extreme closeup of one or two dancers. (Only the opening includes all six.) The portraits are achingly intimate, particularly one danced here by Jae Neal, set to Simone’s “Keeper of the Flame.” As Simone croons about a lost love and the hurt and shame that follow in its wake, Neal, who is trans and nonbinary, invites the viewer into a world of desire and sadness, looking back seductively, touching skin, folding and unfolding as if reliving a sensual memory. In another solo set to “Images” Catherine Kirk moves her arms calligraphically, touching the air around her as if it had mass and texture, and then forming a crown above her brow with her fingers, as Simone sings of a woman who “does not know her beauty” and “thinks her brown body has no glory.” Dressed in gray, moving with aching slowness as if for herself, her beauty glows all the more intensely.

Catherine Kirk in “Uproot: Love and Legacy” by Maleek Washington. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Catherine Kirk also plays an enigmatic role in Maleek Washington’s “Uproot: love and legacy,” which opens the program. Two figures (Tamisha A. Guy and Donovan Reed) nestle and embrace like Adam and Eve beneath an Edenic cherry tree. Kirk arrives, dressed in white. Guy approaches her and the two dance in joyful harmony, with pulsating backs and slashing arms. There is clear affection between them—whether romantic, friendly, or familial is left to the beholder. Another woman enters, and Kirk dances with her too. She is the free agent, the lonely figure that floats from group to group. The piece, set to a score for piano and live, digitally-mixed singing and vocalizations by KAMAUU and Kwinton Gray, seems to illustrate the shifting relationships and dynamics within a group.

Tamisha Guy in “Rain” by Bebe Miller. Photograph by Steven Pisano

Bebe Miller’s solo “Rain” is astonishingly danced by Tamisha A. Guy (alternating with Catherine Kirk), whose body becomes a kind of origami puzzle, opening, closing, collapsing, breaking apart and putting itself back together again. She moves alone in front of a square patch of grass. First we hear a keening woman’s voice, and then a beautiful song by Heitor Villa-Lobos, sung by Salli Terri in a delicate soprano voice. What at first appears almost like an exorcism or a molting eventually resolves into something more plaintive and contained. The dancer lies down and rolls on the grass, runs her hands through it, and kneels, slowly lowering into a backbend. Guy is quietly riveting here, her movements so strong and precise they seem driven by an unstoppable inner force.

It's a great program, and one that shows how skillful Abraham has become, not only as a choreographer, but as a director and a curator.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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