Kyle Abraham’s A. I. M.
at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina was performed July 17th-19th, 2018.
Special to the Clarion Content
by freelance correspondent Lightsey Darst
Confession: I’ve struggled with this review because I’m not sure how to connect what I saw and thought at Kyle Abraham’s Dearest Home. I’d like to get it all in one flow, arrange transitions, arrive. But that’s not happening. So here’s what I have.
A white square. Two dancers emerge from opposite corners. They meet, share a caress; one glides away, then back. They dance together a stretch, then drift apart. They exit opposite. Another enters, briefly alone, then joined. The white space, with the audience arranged around, is less stage (frontal, presented) than arena. Confrontation, encounter; make up, break up. The dancers reach towards each other with yearning arms. Their faces express longing, suffering, struggle; and sometimes tenderness, delight. A deep lunge, both feet gripping the floor, occurs again and again, as if the dancers are trying to make the world stand still. Every entrance presages departure, and the dancers rarely leave together.
Put that with Abraham’s title—Dearest Home—and you have heartbreak. But you have, also, a shimmering presence. Something holds on, in the middle of us, equidistant, suspended, even when the dancers have gone.
American Dance Festival Executive Director Jodee Nimerichter welcomes us to the show. We have already received our personal headsets, over which Jerome Begin’s score will be transmitted. We are allowed, Nimerichter explains, to listen to the music or not. But we should make our decision now, calibrate our earbuds, and stick with our choice. If we elect to take our earbuds out partway through, we should turn the music off completely to preserve the silence others have chosen.
Choosing to listen to the music, I think: why refuse more art?
But choosing more art has an effect I did not expect. With my earbuds in, I’m less able to hear what is immediately around me. My own breath sounds loud, my seatmate’s becomes inaudible. And the dancers, I realize, cannot hear what I do. So oddly I’ve made the choice to aestheticize my experience of their art—or, to put it another way, I’ve elected to put more distance between myself and the dancers’ effort.
This distancing, framing, aestheticizing, whatever you want to call it, occurs elsewhere in Dearest Home. Abraham’s sincere contemporary style is punctuated with fluttering balletic leaps and funky grinds that almost put quotation marks around dance. The lights (designed by Dan Scully) go up, glare, go dim, not in a naturalistic relation to the vignettes that make up the performance, but in a way that highlights or hinders visibility. Costumes (by Abraham) gesture toward a time period—Hawaiian shirts and a coral sweater perhaps recalling the seventies—the more so when dancers take off their clothes and stand in earth-toned underthings. These frames—and their possible removal—suggest layers to our reality, from the individual to the eternal.
But, coming near the middle of Dearest Home, one scene challenges any reach for abstract universals. The cast I saw included six dancers, four women and two men, all (to my eyes) black except for one white man. As this pivotal scene begins, a black couple embrace; the white man troubles their embrace, inserts himself into it. The dancers rearrange, pair again. As the scene progresses, it’s not always the white man who seems on the outside. Nor is he particularly aggressive; it’s possible to read him as a child ejected from his parents’ embrace. But it was impossible for me to watch this scene without thinking of white interference in black intimacy—without thinking of slavery. This disturbing scene sends tendrils through the rest of the piece. When the white dancer later appears on his own, stripping down to his underwear and crying, how do I read him?
Reviews and photos suggest that this trio is not always constructed as it was the night I saw the piece. So what shook me was incidental to the core of Dearest Home? It’s hard to imagine. And yet our individual experiences so often are—not unrelated, not tangential, but perhaps only contiguous.
White critics want black art to be either about race or “universal,” available. For a work of art to hang in between—to, say, include race as an element among the deeper layers of being—is destabilizing. And if a work is not imagined for a white audience? Even more threatening. Might white people not be psychologically safe here? Might the artwork not do all the work?
In the typical white art framework, we sit in the dark and everything is exposed equally to our identical innermost selves. Witness is a different concept. In witness, we share in another’s experience and thus have an experience ourselves, but we may not be privy to the inside of that other experience.
When the last dancer (Jeremy “Jae” Neal) strips down entirely, the lights go so low that he can barely be seen. His nudity is not made available. He reaches, soars, leaves. Dearest Home remains an enchanted space, where we—however briefly—saw each other and ourselves.