I will see anything with the choreographer Kyle Abraham’s name attached to it, and so I attended the premiere of “Reunions”—a free, outdoor dance festival set on a makeshift stage squeezed between the edge of the Paul Milstein Pool and Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center. That Abraham’s name was attached was pretty much all I knew going in. He curated the program, which consisted of new works made by alumni from his company, A.I.M. It is rare, as a reviewer, to have so little foreknowledge of an assignment. And it was more mysterious yet when I arrived to check in for the show, ten minutes before it was due to start, to find it had already begun. That’s something I have never experienced before in the dance world—where an audience-settling grace period is customary. It is rarer yet for low-key, free-admission events, which are usually less organized and start way later. When I asked an usher what was going on, he said he had no idea, and suggested maybe there was a pre-show. This seemed plausible, for the dancers were not dancing on the stage at this point. They were down on the cement plaza off to the side—partially obscured for much of the seated audience. But they moved their dance onto the stage platform still a few minutes shy of the slated start time; it was curious all around. I leaned against a tree, quickly consulted the spare and confusing digital program, and tried to focus on the five women dressed in numbered jerseys and sneakers who were working so hard on the hard ground.
I found out the next day that this opener was “Drills,” by Kayla Farrish, and it was intended as an intro to the show. At some point, it bled into Farrish’s “Roster,” of the show proper. Wherever the line between the pieces, they were clearly of a piece. The premise was strong. Five women performed drills of all kinds: basketball practices and track and field preparations intermingled with basic double pirouettes and jazz isolations. Farrish made interesting parallels, demonstrating that the shoulder rolls an athlete does to loosen up pre-game are not that different from the rhythmically precise shoulder sequences a dancer begins her day with. The cast also went back and forth between portraying athletes and cheerleaders, which posed good questions. Ballers vs their boosters: how different are those roles, physically? Both require a great deal of athleticism and coordination. But which pathway is more open and acceptable for women? And which compensates women more, particularly Black women? “Free Brittney Griner!” some man chanted during the bows. My mind went there too. I liked the way Farrish thought, but I was less enamored of how she transmitted those thoughts. “Drills” and “Roster” dragged. Every now and then #24, Junyla Silmon, would break out into some funkier steps, which was a welcome change from the overly pedestrian movement vocabulary of the rest of it.
The second piece on the program, “Remember, Reclaim, Rejoice,” by Nicole Mannarino, fell into the same trap: good ideas, less good execution. In the opening, “remembering” movement, two women fake sobbed, to a soundtrack of women sobbing, while walking back and forth in 80’s aerobics gear and Daisy Dukes. (The costumes were by the performers: Mannarino and Nola Smith). It was hilarious at first—a smart inversion of how performers often plaster on smiles and dance through personal grief. Buck up, the show must go on! But this sob show went on for far too long, as did the next section, “Reclaim,” in which the women, expressionless now, did the running man while facing each other to Dire Straits’s “Walk of Life.” This didn’t go anywhere, but something glorious happened offstage: two schlubby male passersby on the far side of the reflecting pool started imitating everything the performers were doing. They were nailing it, and they were positively giddy about it. It was hilarious. They supplied a layer of humor that “Reclaim” desperately needed but was too self-serious to provide. Then Laura Witsken, in a red biketard, rode a scooter past these dudes before taking the stage for the last section, “Rejoice.” She performed a long, euphorically flailing solo that was a cross between Meg Ryan having an orgasm at the diner in When Harry Met Sally and Joaquin Phoenix dancing gleefully down the stairs in The Joker. The dudes on the sidelines were surprisingly good at this too.
Then came “Come!,” a modern duet by Connie Shiau, and the show shifted into a higher gear. Dancers Scott Autry and Eleni Loving wore costumes that I can only describe as military Mormon chic (he sported a linen skirt and blouse, she was in green cargo pants and a boxy khaki blouse). Shiau played with gender conventions throughout, as when Loving impressively dead-lifted Autry and walked across the stage with him on her shoulders. Their role-swapping felt as organic as Shiau’s fluid vocabulary, which was way beyond the abilities of the spectator-mimics, who moved in closer and watched respectfully.
Chalvar Monteiro, a standout dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, choreographed the next piece on the bill: “re/turn,” in which he turned three of his Ailey colleagues—Sarah Daley-Perdomo, Ashley Mayeux, and Miranda Quinn—into a lyrical coven. Danté Baylor’s costumes were wonderful: flowy long-sleeved shirts and pants in a forest green chiffon so thin that the women appeared simultaneously fully enrobed and nearly nude. Sometimes the dancers moved together, sometimes one soloed while the other two circled watchfully or knelt solemnly at the side. They were like priestesses engaged in some mysterious ritual until the final movement, which employed clubbier music, and ideologically connected the Salem Witch Trials to girl squads exorcising their demons on a dancefloor—another good idea.
Maleek Washington’s “Shadows: The Bronx Blues” followed and offered something truly original. Washington performed a solo with onstage musical accompaniment and beatboxing (by KAMAUU and Kwinton Gray) that was part dramatic monologue, part spoken-word poetry, part modern dance, and part memoir. He took the stage with swagger: his bright white jumpsuit and matching shiny white durag (rigged with a mic) made it seem like he was a rap or pop star. But he turned his back to the audience to expose “D.O.C” written in faded lettering on his back. He taped off a square on the floor, stood in its center, and performed rigid clockwork moves to tick tock sounds—implying that the ticking of the clock is prison’s true soundtrack.
Then, to a synth soundscape, Washington writhed and hit up against his imaginary walls much as in a zillion pandemic-inspired solos I’ve seen. I’m frankly tired of these Covid box solos, but the context of this dance made the same format seem utterly alien and incredibly powerful. Never once have I seen a dance about prison life, nor have I ever contemplated a real prisoner dancing. It was like seeing a unicorn. (It was new to me, but there have been a few. Abraham made one such piece in 2015 for the Ailey company.) Washington’s dance made clear that though we all got a taste of confinement during the pandemic, our self-imposed lockups were a far cry from the real thing. Not to mention that prisoners suffered from Covid in far greater numbers than those of us stuck inside on the outside.
Even in pop-cultural and artistic representations of prison and prisoners, lyrical dancing is about the furthest thing one can imagine from the scene. Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” gyrations were the most iconic example of prison dancing that I could think of. I also thought back to the radical character Omar on The Wire—whose homosexuality shattered gangster glass ceilings onscreen—but I could not begin to picture him breaking into mournful modern dance moves. It was startling, and affective, to see a Black man in a D.O.C.-stamped jumpsuit miming pistol shooting while also doing slow cambrés. Though Abraham’s fingerprints were all over “Reunions,” his influence was most pronounced here. Washington’s revolutionary pairing of subject matter and medium echoed Abraham’s groundbreaking conjoining of balletic ballon and rap music. After Washington danced himself to breathlessness, his mic switched on and he delivered an emotional monologue about his father’s 16-year stint behind bars. When he finished, the audience leapt to its feet.
Washington was riveting, but this was an outdoor show, and the outside world kept intruding. In this case, it was funny to watch Kevin Pajarillaga, a dancer in the next piece, emerging occasionally from the performer tent adjacent to the stage to watch Washington’s act as he stayed loose. I loved this reminder of the performativity of even the most personal, gut-wrenching art. It was a glimpse of how the sausage is made. For every Hamlet tormentedly pondering whether to kill himself onstage, there’s an actress playing Ophelia waiting in the wings for her reentry cue, taking a sip of water or blowing her nose.
“Things of Nature: Created in Collaboration with Darryl J. Hoffman” by choreographer Rena Butler came next. It was a clever examination of race. Chunks of voiceover narration described several real-life events involving simians—like a circus performance and a zoo attack—but with the words for the specific primates bleeped out. The three sinewy, gifted men in the cast (Pajarillaga, Alexander Anderson, and Jake Tribus) assumed strongman poses, performed acrobatic handstands, and convincingly mimicked apelike behaviors. It was solid in content and execution. And it, along with Shiau’s piece, was one of the few works that didn’t need a shearing.
Vinson Fraley’s “Seeds” closed the long, intermission-less show, which kept losing audience members to fatigue and extreme heat. (On the upside, I got a closer seat every few numbers.) But nobody dared to leave when Fraley climbed onto the edge of the low plaza wall in black sequined pajamas with a microphone, tightrope-walking his way to the stage while intoning “young seeds that have not seen sun forget and drown easily.” Fraley is a wonder—a performer with a surplus of ideas, abs, charisma, and talent. The first time I saw him, he nearly stole Sara Mearns’s solo show at the Joyce. He is both incredibly flexible and incredibly strong—as he demonstrated through numerous contortions and a slow, controlled pistol squat. (Pistol squats are the new fouettés.) He was accompanied by the awesome vocal talents of Holland Andrews, who uses they/them pronouns. Their ululations had such range that until an ambulance passed by my sightline, I thought its siren peals had emanated from their mouth and was part of the “Seeds” score.
Fraley’s pertinent thesis was abundantly clear, from his title to his spoken text to his struggling under a gigantic, black, prop orb before crushing it between his hands. But though he tackles serious topics seriously, from perhaps a surfeit of angles, he maintains a relaxed and humorous composure. When he faced away from the audience with his hands in the air after an intense passage, he gamely waved at the crowd seated on the grassy knoll on the far side of the pool. They mostly waved back. Hysterical.
The crowd responded to his magnetism again and again. A little girl in a bathing suit was adorably imitating his moves along the west side of the pool for most of the piece. And Fraley got a fortuitous spectator assist in his finale too. Fraley reclaimed his mic and started singing at the end of “Seeds,” tentatively at first. But then he eased up and it was clear that he has pipes to boot. He faced backwards the whole time, reminding me of a young Jim Morrison—in multiple ways. This vocal number went on too long, but that was ameliorated by the bliss of a guy dressed in head-to-toe denim—bucket hat included—who wandered past the stage and started grooving to Fraley’s crooning. He was really feeling it—eyes closed, arms in the air. His spontaneous ecstasy hit the spot and provided the perfect theatrical fix.
Though “Reunions” was messy and overlong, it sure had its moments—whether carefully planned by the choreographers or improvised by random New Yorkers. And this conversation between the dances onstage and the civilians offstage was perhaps the most Abraham thing of all. Abraham is no formalist; he is not interested, like the modernists, in divorcing aesthetics from meaning. But he’s nothing like Balanchine and the auteurs either, who hone a signature movement style in service of a specific and abiding vision. Abraham’s dances always have something to say, without any uniformity in the saying. He uses multiple styles and genres to get his messages across. In fact, the interface of his mediums is the message. (Though he is often more heart-on-his-sleeve with his own troupe.) He knows that uber-classical ballet steps say something different when set to Kanye West than they do to Tchaikovsky. He may need a new label: post-formalist? For, rather than eschewing form, he is a formal chameleon. In literary terms, structuralism comes close but doesn’t quite cover it. Whatever the appropriate title for Abraham, the six choreographers of “Reunions” proved themselves to be his disciples in this formally explorative respect. And since they were all minorities, their toggles between theses and forms were particularly biting—and refreshing. I was especially excited by those who incorporated poetry slam elements, something I’d not really seen before. None have yet achieved Abraham’s integrative polish, but it was exciting to witness a younger generation for whom dance is the preferred outlet to work through substantial social issues. And it was marvelous that as the choreographers engaged with real urban subjects through dance, several real city inhabitants responded through dance in kind.