Part of week-long series, ‘Parallels’
By Carrie Stern
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sitting in the front row, I catch my breath… and breath out, ohhh. My friend breathes in tandem besides me. As movement unreels across the stage, tiny gasps unfurl though the performance space. This was the last night of the eight-week long series “PLATFORM 2012: Parallels.”
Among the offerings of the evening, choreographer Kyle Abraham’s retelling of John Singleton’s 1991 movie “Boyz n the Hood” is a stand out. The original story, about a group of friends growing up in inner-city Los Angeles, becomes a character study in movement in Abraham’s “Boyz n the Hood: Pavement.” It toys with clichés and stereotypes associated with black culture. The gasps from the audience were for Abraham’s own astonishing technical gifts — he moves like a ribbon pulled and twisted through fingers, allowed to float, then coiled, tied and set free.
Abraham’s sensibility as a choreographer is maturing; his skill at creating complex, beautifully crafted, intriguing movement that effortlessly morphs from solos to group work with incredible speed and delicacy, is deepening. He draws on ballet, modern, hip hop and social dance so seamlessly that it creates a new dance language. His movement startles in the way it flows from precise technical turns and balances to loose-jointed jumps and soft catches. Particularly striking in "Boyz n the Hood: Pavement" is when, towards the end of the work, a white male dancer lays black male dancers, who are unresisting, on the floor. Recalling a Leon Golub painting, he folds their arms behind their back, as if cuffed. A dancer enters, eating chips, and leans on a body, “death” is normalized, ignored.
The work ends bravely, in a choreographic sense. Dancers lie on top of each other, in one pile four bodies deep. They are still for a long time. More than a song goes by. The audience stares at the stage, transfixed. Finally, slowly, the bottom person slides out from beneath the pile barely disturbing those on top. You think he will start dancing. Instead, he settles on top of the pile.
The cast is first-rate, a collection of beautiful movers, sensitive to their roles as interpreters. The evocative score ranges from the work of British classicalist Benjamin Britten, to R&B and soul singers Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway, to Fred McDowell’s country blues and the sounds of an urban city.
Abraham is part of a new generation of Brooklyn-based choreographers whose stars are rising. Like his earlier “Ramp to Paradise,” (created for Brooklyn’s Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center and based on a story by its executive director, Alex Smith), this new work has an uneasy relationship between telling a theatrical story and creating abstracted movement passages. At times, Abraham’s desire to keep his characters real and honest interferes with his movement design.
Conversely, in designing passages through space, somtimes he loses his characters. It is a tension ballet grapples with, and it is not an easy one to reconcile. But with each new work, Abraham solves more pieces of his dance puzzle.
The balance of the last "Parallels" program was not to be ignored. Brooklyn-based Samantha Speis’ stark, powerful solo, “The Way it Was, and Now (First Rendition),” opened the evening. At the start, physically framed by the arch that dominates one end of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, Speis resembled Isadora Duncan, founder of modern dance, as pictured in Edward Steichen’s iconic 1921 photos of Duncan at the Parthenon. Legs firmly, widely planted, Speis’ sensuous torso twisted, arched and bent; on the floor in front of her was a widely scattered sea of clothing. Descending the steps, Speis continued to dance, slowly putting on layers of clothes until she was as padded and round as a homeless person carrying her life on her back. The padding impeded her movement, and made her heavy in a dance that was more formal — and visual — than emotional. The clothing was donated to charity at the end of the weekend. Composer Val Jeanty’s turntable-induced soundscape was an intriguing background.
Less successful was Marjani Forté’s “Here…” This piece is overtly political. Set to a score comprised of Malcom X’s “Message to the Grassroots” (1963), Whitney Houston’s “The Star Spangled Banner” (1991) and the Rev. Paul Jones “I Won’t Complain,” the intensely performed dance-theater movement occupied the space intriguingly, even putting performers in the audience, as if to blur the distinction. Despite some intriguing passages of dance, and strong juxtapositions of story and movement, the performance was uneven and the work didn’t quite gel.
Introducing the night’s performance, choreographer/performer and “PLATFORM” curator Ishmael Huston-Jones reminded the audience that the series was designed to ask the question, “What is black dance? Does it even exist?”
The first “Parallels" project, in 1982, featured now-influential African-American choreographers, including Ralph Lemon, Bebe Miller, Blondell Cummings, Fred Holland and Gus Solomons Jr., among others. (Lemon and Huston-Jones are the only participants in both “Parallels.”) In the 1982 catalogue, Huston-Jones wrote: “while all the choreographers… are Black, and in some ways relate to the rich tradition of Afro-American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition, and even outside the tradition of mainstream modern dance.”
This 21st-century incarnation of the project featured dancers with very different histories. Huston-Jones began the evening with a laugh and this statement: “In 1982, Kyle Abraham was 5, Samantha Speis was 3 months old, and Marjani Forté had not yet been born.” While we hardly live in a “post-racial society,” as some would like to claim, these dancers grew up in a very different United States, and a very different dance world, than dancers in 1982. In 2012, Huston-Jones asked, “In a time when the president of the United States is the progeny of a Kenyan and a European American, what real meaning do the terms ‘Black,’ ‘Afro-American,’ or 'African-American’ hold? Does ‘outside the mainstream’ have the same resonance that it had three decades earlier? How have new generations' ideas evolved from the time of the first 'Parallels?' ”
There are many answers to these questions, only some of which were apparent over the eight-week run of “Parallels.” One of the series' most visceral lessons, for me, was to be found in the (always) striking level of technical skill among dancers trained in a now established, university-based, pre-professional dance system that is vastly more multi-racial than in 1982. This generation of dancers has also had the opportunity to dance in the companies of the 1982 generation, gaining a range of creative perspectives. Already integrated into artistic currents, the dancers of this new generation seem to choose where, and how, and if, race enters their work. If this final “Parallels” evening was more politicized than its 1982 counterpart, it also “spoke” in a voice unfettered by ideas and rules of what black dance must be.