By Gillian Jakab, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 11, 2015
What does it mean to dance social justice? This question occupied the hour-and-a-half “night school” session this past Monday led by Prof. Clare Croft with choreographer Kyle Abraham as part of Abraham.In.Motion’s weeklong residency in Ann Arbor, culminating in its University Musical Society debut of The Watershed on Friday and When the Wolves Came In on Saturday.
University Musical Society
Friday, March 13, 8pm
Saturday, March 14, 8pm
Tickets: $24-40, with half price student tickets and day of rush tickets starting at $10
Friday 3/13 – The Watershed
Saturday 3/14 – When the Wolves Came In
Abraham doesn’t dance around the issues of race and identity that he has set out to explore with these works, but rather charts a collision course with them in multi-media form. With the layers of choreography, music, visual projections and theatrical elements of drag, the mind and body are roused into perpetual motion as Abraham propels us through the history of civil rights to confront our contemporary social climate.
Abraham visited Ann Arbor last spring to do some workshops including a “You Can Dance” community program at the YMCA, but this is the first time we get to see Abraham.In.Motion perform. The Pittsburgh-born choreographer has been praised for his refreshing and eclectic post-modern style — a blend of his immersion in hip-hop and rave cultures and his classical training in music, visual art and dance. After studying modern dance at SUNY Purchase and NYU Tisch, Abraham began dancing professionally and founded his company in 2006. The dance world has certainly noticed his talent; Abraham has been invited to work with long-established choreographers such as David Dorfman and Bill T. Jones, and was commissioned to create a piece for Alvin Ailey American Dance in 2012. Recognition and funding is essential to power a choreographer’s work and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 and residency with New York Live Arts from 2012-2014, among other awards, have been key planks in Abraham’s launching pad.
Abraham comes to UMS with nine dancers from his company. One of them, Matthew Baker, is a native of Ann Arbor who went to Western Michigan University and grew up seeing shows at the Power Center and Hill Auditorium. Baker remembers being awed as a 13 year-old dance student seeing Baryshnikov perform solos on the stage of the Power Center. The realization that he will take the same stage this weekend is deeply meaningful to Baker.
“UMS, and the Power Center and all that has been a part of my life and my family’s life — it’ll be great to go back,” Baker said. “The programming is always really wonderful. I’m excited that our company is going to become part of that.”
This weekend, Abraham.In.Motion is performing the two pieces created over Abraham’s tenure as resident artist with New York Live Arts, both of which premiered in September 2014. The pieces correspond to the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Abraham drew inspiration from the 1960 Max Roach album We Insist! which, in Saturday’s program, When the Wolves Came In, is reinterpreted by the Robert Glasper Trio. Friday’s program, The Watershed, is an evening-length piece that mixes imagery from the Emancipation Proclamation period, the American civil rights movement in the 1960s and contemporary race relations.
“(The Watershed is) drawing some then-and-now comparisons and … (puts) questions out in the air and in people’s minds,” Baker said. “It’s really interesting the way that he uses dance and theatrical elements to do that — to start a conversation.”
This was a collaborative process for Abraham, working with Glasper on musical interpretation of the Max Roach album and visual artist Glenn Ligon to curate film projections and overall set design to complement the live art. Not only was the process collaborative across artistic disciplines, but the choreography itself emerged from conversations with, and contributions from, the dancers. Baker reflected on the ways in which race is represented and performed in the pieces:
“A lot of the presentations of race, the race of a certain dancer and the relationships (among them) I think sometimes are very intentional to draw attention to a certain scene or movement, but I think a lot of the time they’re kind of up in the air to allow (an) audience (member’s) personal backgrounds or what (he or she) is interpreting in the piece to inform what they’re seeing,” Baker said. “I also think a lot of stuff is made initially qualitatively based on the blending of two dancer’s different styles, and sometimes race or identity or meaning fit in, or layer in, where it might make sense, or not make sense, or draw an interesting parallel. I think sometimes those things are crafted and sometimes they come up organically just as the movement does.”
The workshops and events surrounding the performances — the night school sessions, brunch download and post-show Q&As following this weekend’s performances — are of equal importance and serve as a forum to digest the heavy material.
“It’s really interesting to hear back from the communities and I think it’s important to Kyle, and I’ve seen a number of times, to let the communities hear each other,” Baker said. “I’ve actually sat in many of the small conversations where one person will (say) ‘the dance is so abstract’ and I think a lot of times people don’t know how to watch it, so when they’re forced to talk about it they come up with all these different perspectives and I think that revealing something about themselves helps them learn something about their communities and each other and how to change or develop.”
Although not originally conceived as a response to the recent tensions in race relations, The Watershed and When the Wolves Came In could not be more timely in the wake of the recent awakenings of the nation’s awareness around the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year.
“I think the pieces and the work (as a whole) raise a lot of questions for people, and starting a conversation can be a catalyst for change or for organizing … But I also think art and artists have a way of communicating certain things about the times that we live in because they are making art in that time. I think that Kyle’s voice has developed and is really being heard right now — people are taking note and heeding interest because he has a lot to say, and he says it in a really interesting way through movement,” Baker said.
Kyle Abraham has been called “the man of the moment” and “darling of the dance world” by Dance Magazine He is a rising star in the dance and performance world — one to watch in the years to come. Not only can we start by watching him this weekend at the Power Center, but we can engage in his conversation.
“As dance works,” Abraham writes in his Director’s Note, “The Watershed and its companion piece, When the Wolves Came In were created to live in a skin well aware of the cyclical hardships of our history and the very present fear of an unknowable future.”