Kyle Abraham's company Abraham.In.Motion (A.I.M) headlines the Laguna Dance Festival with performances of Pavement on Thursday and Friday evenings, September 22 and 23. The piece brings an exterior basketball court inside the theater to a soundtrack mixing opera, blues, hip-hop, noise and spoken text delivered by the high-caliber dancers, which happen to include Abraham. The award-winning choreographer exudes tons of warmth and a sly wit as he talks with passion about his influences, from modern dance gods Graham and Cunningham to his fellow downtown New York postmoderns such as Faye Driscoll, whom he credits as inspiration for, among other things, bringing shots of humor to a dance that deals directly with injustice.
An outdoor basketball court inside a theater is such a potent image, evoking a place of community, a place where drugs are dealt, a place where skills can be honed as a way out—described on the company's website as a place that contains a “constant quest for a lottery ticket weighted in freedom.” When asked how he got the idea for the basketball court, Abraham says his dad coached a summer league for many years in Pittsburgh, where Abraham grew up. The outdoor court was as much a part of his life in Pittsburgh as playing classical music on the cello and listening to hip-hop.
Abraham has just moved to Los Angeles to begin teaching at UCLA's World Arts and Cultures/Dance department, which he is elated about. He foresees finding new ways to deliver information to students will fuel his creativity. The company will remain based in New York City, with his trusted rehearsal director and choreographic assistant keeping the repertory sharp for touring. Abraham says New York is just too loud for creating new works. He likes quiet, the better to brew up his next “postmodern gumbo.”
Watch a video clip of Pavement and you'll see and hear the roux of ingredients he cooks together in this critically acclaimed work. Also, you'll immediately make a #BlackLivesMatter connection. In the clip, you see many iterations of hands thrust behind the back as if being handcuffed. “All of those gestures were in there prior to all that's gone on in the last six years.”Abraham says. “It's unfortunate that it's still as important as it is.” Though Abraham began conceiving the piece back in 2010, the choreography hasn't changed since its debut in 2012. The company happened to be in Florida building the piece, and they'd formed about 50 minutes of material when Trayvon Martin was murdered. “And when people saw the work, after his tragic death, they wondered if it was in response to his murder. But the piece was already formed.” In the four years A.I.M has been touring Pavement, that same question comes during the Q&As, just not with Trayvon Martin's name, but with that of too many others. “It's why we're still touring, why it's come back.”
Not really familiar with Southern California geography or OC demographics, Abraham doesn't have any expectations for the Q&As in Laguna Beach that follow the upcoming performances. When told there isn't much of an African-American population in OC, he says calmly, “In all reality, it's never usually black folks that ask me about #BlackLivesMatter. We know that our lives matter. We know it's just a reality for us—we've been hung and murdered for a very long time. But the only difference now is social media captures it. And people are starting to build more and more empathy for the lack of equality.”
It's entirely fitting that he ends that weighty statement on an optimistic note, because Abraham sustains the impression he is on a quest to evolve as an artist and a human being. Hopefully those of us who see his work will evolve a little too. This is an opportunity to see cutting-edge dance choreography by an artist who has not only been awarded a MacArthur grant, but has been commissioned by dance elite, such as Alvin Ailey. Merde! as they say in the dance world; this is going to be really good shit.
Pavement will be performed September 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. to open the Laguna Dance Festival, at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach; lagunadancefestival.org.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.