Abraham.In.Motion dances human struggles to life at Hancher

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Abraham.In.Motion during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann.
Abraham.In.Motion during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Since Dance Magazine named him one of 2009’s “25 to watch,” Kyle Abraham has been making his mark on the dance world. Abraham has received numerous awards, and his recent work includes a pas de deux with former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, choreography for the film The Book of Henry, and a new work, Untitled America, for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Iowa City was privileged to welcome his company, Abraham.In.Motion, to Hancher Auditorium for a three-part program featuring works entitled “The Quiet Dance,” “Absent Matter” and “The Gettin’.”

“The Quiet Dance” plays with moments of stillness, emphasized by the contrast of the occasional snap. The scene opens in silence as a lone woman (Connie Shiau) slowly walks toward the audience. As she progresses, her path is punctuated by the occasional frenetic, elastic burst which falls back into a liquid port de bras like the tide pulling back after the crest of a wave. In fact, the whole piece is reminiscent of elements in the natural landscape; some movements feel very grounded and earthy, and at the next moment the dancers’ arms are outstretched like wings with their chests in high release. A slow, distant gaze seems to pan the horizon, lending an expansive and atmospheric air.

A group enters downstage and moves mostly in unison. Fluid gestures draw focus to the arms while their lower bodies are more pedestrian and minimal. Bill Evans’ tranquil piano joins in as if it were another dancer, echoing their movements with the music of Leonard Bernstein.

The motions of the dancers feel deeply personal and intimate, and while they are close to each other, they appear to be very much alone. This sense of shared experience without awareness of each other is broken when suddenly two women bend towards each other and touch, creating an unexpected focal point. Throughout the piece, these subtle moments of contact emerge as the dancers touch heads, or place their hands on another’s lower back to draw them up from a still, bent-over plié. These moments are made powerful by their infrequency, and by the fact that these touches seem more at home in natural human interaction than dance technique.

Catherine Ellis Kirk and Connie Shiau rehearse "The Quiet Dance" at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann.
Catherine Ellis Kirk and Connie Shiau rehearse “The Quiet Dance” at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

The grey-blue and sepia tones of the lighting and simple, timeless costumes evoke faded photographs when the dancers pause. The movement scatters, the dancers flailing and reaching in all directions before gathering themselves to calm as they slide their arms over their heads, almost as if smoothing their hair and clothing. This constant back and forth between dynamic, passionate, athletic wildness and quiet stillness, whether introspective or watchful, permeates the program from start to finish.

Abraham is a documentarian choreographer, compelled to comment on issues of social justice and share experiences that are integral to the character of our nation and world. This becomes clear from the first moment of “Absent Matter,” a piece about the Black Lives Matter movement, which incorporates photography, video, spoken word, lighting and sound effects, as well as the lyrics in its music (including Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West), to make its message clear.

As the piece begins, a solo male breaks through images of violence projected on the backdrop, while a voice wonders, “perhaps there’s some kind of violence that’s always essential to the land of milk and honey.” The tension on the screen is present in the movement, and the dancer moves forward and hesitates, takes a step back. Bound flow builds tension until bodies snap back like a rubber band.

Marcella Lewis and Jeremy "Jae" Neal perform "Absent Matter" during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann.
Marcella Lewis and Jeremy “Jae” Neal perform “Absent Matter” during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought national focus to the discriminatory police violence and institutional racism that have always been present in this country. Ubiquitous cell phone cameras have made tragic examples of this inexcusable reality more visible, and Abraham appears to explore this theme through his use of lighting and focus.

A soloist’s rapid, dynamic movement expands and contracts as a tableau slowly forms in the spotlight, with a man lying down and a woman kneeling over him. The contrast between vitality and stillness lends weight to this scene, which recurs several times throughout the piece. The power of the observer’s gaze is often present in this picture, with another dancer observing and reacting, or lights flashing as if multiple cameras are documenting the occurrence. Reactions range from a calm stare to spastic stutter steps to frantic arm motions as if trying to shake the thoughts from her head.

Light defines the space into distinct scenes. It creates an invisible barrier, as a woman (Catherine Ellis Kirk) who has been standing and moving freely across a space washed with light falls to the ground and is trapped within a square as darkness falls and the violent images on the screen return. She throws her hands in the air in unison with the people projected behind her, as a recording plays the chant “hands up, don’t shoot!” Kirk’s explosive athleticism and articulate gestures allow her to express a range of emotions that seem to change on a dime.

The relationship between the projections and moving bodies continues — flames lick the walls, echoing the dancers’ elastic movement style. Eventually there are four dancers lying on the ground with another dancer observing them. They help each other up as the music proclaims “we gon’ be alright.”

Marcella Lewis, Catherine Ellis Kirk, and Kyle Abraham perform "Absent Matter" during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. -- photo by Zak Neumann.
Marcella Lewis, Catherine Ellis Kirk, and Kyle Abraham perform “Absent Matter” during rehearsal at Hancher. Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

“The Gettin’” also employs projected, black-and-white images, beginning with a large sign from apartheid-era South Africa that says “white area” in English and Afrikaans. Dancers in big skirts churn and whirl to a drum beat as a woman faces upstage, appearing to look out across the water on the backdrop before her. The dancers shift between unison and canon and breaking out on their own, milling about like a crowd in a street scene.

Two men, one black and one white, stand still, facing opposite directions, looking past but not at one another. They perform the same movements but maintain their distance, beginning to notice and circle each other. As they close in, their gestures express conflicted emotion, sizing each other up one moment, shrugging the next, showing aggression as images of a fight in the midst of a crowd are projected behind them, touching each other tenderly and then pushing each other off. Finally, they remove their shirts, walking right up to the projected images and facing them at close range. They stand still and watch the images until other dancers enter. One man leaves and the other slowly dresses and joins the group, in yet another moment that captures the quiet power of the mundane.

Abraham’s characters are distinctly human, creating a narrative with gesture while seamlessly transitioning between pedestrian movement, classical dance, hip hop, African dance and social dance styles. At the end of “The Gettin’,” a woman moves as if she were out dancing with her friends, in a perfect physical expression of the voice of the poet who shares powerful words as she dances. Light illuminates half her body as she moves between halves of the stage that are labeled “whites only” and “non-whites only.”

After Friday’s performance, the shockingly small company assembled on stage, and the choreographer explained that two of the dancers were making their debut with the company that night. Abraham himself was filling in for another dancer. It’s a testament to their skill that the audience never would have known. This program is a dynamic, timely performance from one of the dance world’s rising stars.

Iowa has another chance to catch Abraham.In.Motion on this tour, with a performance of this same program at the Des Moines Civic Center on Wednesday, Feb. 1.

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