Last year, Out Magazine bestowed upon Kyle Abraham, dancer/choreographer/director of Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M.), one of the more interesting and often cited “sound-bites,” describing Abraham as “the best and brightest creative talent to emerge from New York City in the age of Obama.”
So if this is the “age of Obama,” where do we currently stand on the issues of race, gender, and identity? As an artist who investigates those topics, we asked Abraham if his work echoes a delicate hopefulness or a cautionary tale in our current social evolution.
“I think of my work as a more organic response to my experiences. And with that, I’m interested in exposing reality through an abstracted lens that allows the viewer to create his or her own outcome.
“Ultimately, I hope that the work spawns action. Even when celebrating uplifting achievements like President Obama’s recent Inaugural Speech, which was filled with inclusion and hope, we now need to take part in the follow through, to open the eyes, minds, and hearts of those who seemed blinded to see the unbalanced injustices in regards to gender issues and sexual orientation.
“It is the reality of both the joy and hardship that I’m focused on. When people see the work, they’re entering a theater with their own personal history. I like to, hopefully, show them mine. And see if a spark can be set off.”
The sparks were set off clearly on Friday night, Feb. 1, at The Colony Theater as MDC Live Arts presented Abraham.In.Motion’s Live! The Realest MC. The mixed-media piece is a luminous affair with lighting and projection design by Dan Scully and film by Carrie Schneider. Schneider’s films of running children in repetitive frame loops were projected on the bottom stage-left corner or on the floor under the dancers. Instead of projecting light from the booms, Scully physically and visibly set the lights on stage washing the dancers in warm hues while the rest of the stage was a monochromatic affair of stark bright lights against the black track suits with shiny silver inseams made by costume designer Kristi Wood.
The story of Pinocchio wanting to be a “real boy” serves as a metaphor as Abraham similarly searches for a way for his protagonist to assimilate or hide his identity in the more accepted physical movement, dress and posing of a male hip-hop dancer.
Abraham begins like Pinocchio as he comes to life trying out his appendages as he struggles to stand. In a brilliant physical translation, Abraham moves his joints like hinges — part puppet, part pop and lock — and deftly rolls over the tops of his feet as he falls or rises from the ground. He is costumed in a shiny sequenced top of bronze with muted gold pants, in an obvious contrast to the aforementioned tracksuits worn by all the other dancers.
Clothing and stages of undress were significant. The rules of assimilation are coded from head to toe as even the women with collars up mug and front an attitude to the audience. The uniform tracksuits become such an intimidating shield that as dancers appear in shorts or tank tops, the sense of their vulnerability without their previous armor is tenfold. One humorous and telling moment occurs between two of the male dancers, Chalvar Monteiro and Maleek Washington. While a voice-over gives instruction on how to pose your arms and do a step, both men perform completely different interpretations of the instructions. Washington in the full tracksuit does the more acceptable hip-hop moves, while Monteiro in short shorts sashays and flexes his arms in perfect queer-boy fashion.
But the most apparent struggle with the inner self and the veneer of conformity was Abraham’s solo as he spoke into a mic set on stage, sometimes crying “he hit me mommy… I didn’t do anything” — or sometimes repeating a haunting chant and rap in a deep angry voice, “they held me down.” He would speak and move and try to do things the manly way, only to lose his composure and fall back into a crying fit, check himself, and return to the angrier posturing of a tough while he continued his rap without the crying.
The overall vocabulary of the piece was a seamless blend between hip-hop posing and electric modern movement, as the dancers spun like sharp precision blades in repetitive turns born from the solar plexus as their flung arms propelled them through space. Interspersed were verbal moments, as when Washington tried his pick-up lines on a non-responsive female — and then when no one is looking tries to pick up the men. Men hold hands with men in stolen moments and are dropped as the ensemble gathers on stage. Overall, there is a tension and pain in this struggle of trying to sublimate one’s true desire and assimilating into the body language of the norm.
At first glance, the Pinocchio of this journey has given in. Abraham conforms. In his final struggle as he dances against a piano riff moving in a one-to-one relationship with each note, he performs the hip-hop version of an adagio. He wears no remnant of his original flashy costume, instead it’s the full tracksuit that all the dancers end up in at the end. But just before the lights dim completely, Abraham takes off his jacket and approaches the lip of the stage. He grabs the mic and turns his back to the audience to reveal the back of his shirt all in glittery sequence. Underneath the armor, he is still true to himself.
Whether this is a sign of hope that both natures will coexist, or a sign of despair that even in the “age of Obama” we must still hide our differences, is an outcome only the audience can decide, as Abraham said. Or maybe it’s a question that we cannot answer until the question of differences no longer needs to be asked.