Performing Arts: Dance
September 28, 2014
This past Friday Kyle Abraham shared the fruits of his two-year residency at New York Live Arts. Coupled with his winning of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant in 2013 and his increased exposure as a public representative for the dance world the expectations amongst the audience were justifiably high. Friday was a showing of ‘The Watershed’ one of two new works, the second being ‘When the Wolves Came In,’ that are continuing their premiere at NYLA over the next week.

In the program notes Abraham speaks of drawing inspiration from Max Roach’s Freedom Suite as well as, in a more abstract sense, from the stories of Hector Pieterson and countless other “women and men facing violence and discrimination.” It is meant as a questioning of freedom and its meaning on a historical level as well as on a personal one. If this sounds like a lot to tackle in a sixty-minute dance theater work, it is. Thematically busy may be an understatement. However, even where it fell short, the work managed to maintain a creatively kinesthetic experience for viewers that showcased the strengths of Abraham and his bevy of talented dancers.

The work is split into two acts along with a “Prologue” and “Epilogue.” The titles were splashed on a wood paneled backdrop to denote section changes. This same text projection was used to show quotes and videos that related directly or indirectly to the action onstage. There is also a white tree made of plastic piping hung with material to resemble Spanish moss designed by Glen Ligon.

At times the work felt like a series of visual metaphors connected by sections of hyperkinetic phrase work, sinuous partnering and sweeping movement formations. These images include Abraham’s first appearance onstage in full drag complete with white courtesan wig. He sits on a bench beneath the tree and begins to cover himself with white foundation. This use of “white face,” while not necessarily innovative, did garner the desired response from the audience with audible signs of understanding and disapproval.

There is a long slow walk up the diagonal by a shirtless male dancer holding a watermelon aloft as if in a procession. The subsequent scene has the watermelon being chopped with a hatchet on a polka dotted picnic blanket as the dancers engage in a series of duets.

Probably the most arresting and heavy handed of these images occurred at the beginning of the second act where Abraham is dancing a solo in black to a prison work song. The solo finishes and a silver chain drops from the ceiling onto the floor unexpectedly, with much fanfare, and accompanied by a blackout. The section that follows sees lighting made to resemble bars on the stage floor and dancers dressed in ubiquitous grey jump suits.

Abraham’s movement vocabulary while distinctive, exhilarating and eclectic, as ever, did little to support the work topically and seemed more alongside the concepts rather than in congress with them. This disconnect leads to an earnestly ambivalent sentiment. To be sure, the work does touch on many important and relevant issues both historically and currently, but it does so in a way that feels spread thin.

As important as Abraham’s voice has become in the last few years we can hope that he continues to hone and strengthen the argument he makes for the shifting concept of freedom and the way in which it faults, fails, challenges and ultimately uplifts us. With his gifts for engaging physicality, gifted dancers and the public eye I like to think that he will.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Chafin Seymour

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