A Dance Labyrinth by Kyle Abraham

By Rachel Straus

The world premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Pavement, seen at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse on November 3, evokes a vision of urban youth careening through a dark world. Abraham begins Pavement by marking a spot with his downcast arm.  Then he lassoes his body, drawing a circle with his outstretched limbs. He moves loose, full force and in searching manner, as if looking for a clear compass. When a white dancer enters, he stops Abraham, lies him face down on the floor, and brings his hands to the base of his spine. Abraham’s arrest is done without emotion. This lack of drama makes the event feel doubly devastating.

Pavement’s racially provocative introduction occurs to the accompaniment of Fred McDowell’s rasp-voiced blues song “What’s the Matter Now.” Its lyrics suggest impending violence, but the brutality in Pavement never occurs on stage. It transpires through sound bites from John Singleton’s 1991 crime drama Boyz n the Hood in which young men lose their lives to gang violence.

The recent violence of Hurricane Sandy robbed Pavement of its intended set design. Yet the square stage’s red outline and the presence of a basketball hoop, whose backboard occasionally projected visions of a housing project, gave the 70-minute work a clear sense of place. Abraham’s casting—four black male dancers (Abraham included), two white male dancers, and one black female performer (the powerful mover Rena Butler)—augured a dance about race. Yet Pavement is far from being a modern-day West Side Story. A tale of black against white never comes to the fore. Like T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Wasteland, Abraham creates scenes that don’t necessarily fit together or have clear beginnings and endings. They are snippets of everyday life (Abraham asking for a dollar) and dream evocations, in which his remarkable dancers’ limbs weave in and out of each other to the accompaniment of a red strobe light.

Pavement’s stream of conscious structure is also created through a collage of 12 pieces of music. The recorded selections include a J.C. Bach and Mozart aria (performed by the French tenor Philippe Jaroussky), two ballads by Sam Cooke, and an excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (about homosexual oppression). Almost all of the musical selections, listed in the playbill by the composers’ names only, carry metaphorical weight. Unfortunately, it requires research to understand the connections Abraham is making between the music and his messages regarding the slipperiness of love, gender and race.

In the program notes, Abraham excerpts a quote from W.E.B Du Bois’ 1903 Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois developed the theory of a black person’s double consciousness. He called it the veil. When Abraham’s dancers do the high five, the gangsta walk, and behave too cool for school, they appear to be acting out today’s veil. When they launch into pure dancing sections, they move beyond coded acts of identity. They become unveiled.

Pavement ends with a pile up of bodies. The dancers, however, don’t look dead; they appear to be sleeping, lulled by the sound of Donny Hathaway singing “Some Day We’ll All Be Free.” Here again Abraham transforms a violent image into one that is doubled or fractured in meaning. This shirking of didacticism makes Pavement more porous than concrete. Here is a dance work that becomes a labyrinth, one that is as puzzling as it is fascinating.

Tags: Benjamin Britton, Boyz n the Hood, Donny Hathaway, Fred McDowell, Harlem Stage Gatehouse, Hurricane Sandy, J.S. Bach, John Singleton, Kyle Abraham, mozart, Pavement, peter grimes, Philippe Jaroussky, Rena Butler, Sam Cooke, Some Day We'll All Be Free, Souls of Black Folk, The Wasteland, W.E.B. Dubois, West Side Story, What's the Matter Now

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