That the inner city is a hidden war zone is painfully clear in Kyle Abraham’s “Pavement,” a beautiful and severely honest work performed by his dance company, Abraham.In.Motion. But despite its name and subject matter, “Pavement” is not all hard edges. It delivers a sharp sense of reality with extraordinary softness, in dancing that is lush and seductive.
As a result, you fall in love with the seven dancers, Abraham included. You’re drawn in by their bodies, carried along by the fluid mix of urban dance styles and distilled aggression, depression and hustling. Abraham brings us close. With poetic economy — a child’s voice asking about the nightly gunfire; a brief, hot fight; a few gestures of affection or pleading — he conveys what that concrete battlefield feels like in this piece, performed over the weekend at Dance Place. And to local dancegoers’ continued good fortune, Dance Place has plans for another presentation of Abraham’s work next year, the third in a row, after last year’s transcendent “The Radio Show,” on the intertwining of music and his father’s illness.
“Pavement” starts with a tour de force: Abraham and a couple of other dancers roll their hips and shoulders and most every other joint in an abandoned, juicy response to an acoustic blues recording. It’s a vision of delirious joy, crushed when these men, all African American, are restrained and sent face-down onto the floor by white company members. Their hands are clasped behind them as if in handcuffs.
It’s an exquisitely rich opening, alluding to the segregated South, and it leads us into a world of camaraderie on the basketball court, insistent bravado and the compounding stresses of poverty, crime and crumbling surroundings of every sort. (At one point, we see a video projection of a housing project being torn down, over and over, and it’s like an apocalypse.) Abraham was inspired by his youth in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the inner-city crime film “Boyz N the Hood,” and the troubling views of African American culture in both.
Much of the atmosphere is communicated through sound — the music ranges from Bach and Jacques Brel to Sam Cooke and Alan Lomax. But the dancing is just as emotional and evocative, the dancers in loose jeans, T-shirts and faded flannel, spinning in perfect ballet turns, letting their legs fly in sky-scraping extensions and then collapsing as if their will had drained away.
“Pavement” ends by circling back to that poignant beginning, with dancers lying face-down, one by one, hands behind them. But not all are on the floor. They lie atop one another, stacked like mattresses. It’s an image of comfort and coldness, tragic and universal: At some point, everyone, everywhere will end up down in the dust.
Abraham gives us a good, long look at the stacked-up bodies. They form a still life, like those dark Dutch paintings of kitchen tables draped with the skin of dead game, offering a close-up view of death but also indicating an ongoing life cycle.
The cycle that Abraham encapsulates with such profound feeling and choreographic brilliance in “Pavement” is difficult to contemplate. It sits in your throat, burning. And it stays with you.