Framing a difficult past with sequins and hip-hop

It takes heart, imagination and ambition to frame a painful past in hip-hop and sequins. Kyle Abraham pulls it off, in more ways than one, in his newest work, “Live! The Realest MC,” an hour-long experience in dance, video and sound that speaks to the universal need to not feel forever like a freak.

Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and his Brooklyn-based company, Abraham.In.Motion, performed “Live!” this weekend at Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theater. It was the only local theater big enough for the work’s video screen backdrop, as Dance Place founder Carla Perlo told the audience Saturday. (Dance Place’s support has brought Abraham’s company to Washington for three years, which is lucky for us.)

A luxury of movement is one of Abraham’s hallmarks, and it was the strength of “Live!”: the rolling, spongy crouch of hip-hop, the martial-arts kicks, clubby vamping and drag-queen posturing. Threaded through the piece were fragments of Abraham’s youthful struggle with being gay and tormented, keeping his sequined dreams under wraps. In the work’s most mesmerizing moment, he appears as a puppet, a modern-day Pinocchio in gold paillettes, his rigid joints slowly warming into human motion.

But was he now a real boy, because he moved like one? The question of “realness” surfaced throughout. In one of the videos projected on that widescreen backdrop, a white woman with a thick Southern accent offered a perky tutorial in hip-hop steps and spoke in an earnest twang about her love of the lifestyle. This made the audience laugh, but I wondered: Isn’t judging her similar to the ridicule that anyone else seen as going against the grain encounters? And did Abraham mean for that question to arise?

It’s likely he did. Thoughts were provoked often in “Live!” But to gather them into a deeper experience, the storytelling needs sharpening. Some of the dance passages felt lengthy and random, and slowed down the emotional momentum.

Better were the brief, dramatic scenes, as when Abraham spoke into a microphone, recalling to his imaginary mother how “they held me down” and tried to “get the best of me.” In fact, his audience gets the best of him. Abraham is a beautiful mover and can make an eloquent point with subtle corporeal emphasis. At the end, speaking for the ugly duckling in all of us, he unzipped his warm-up jacket to show off a show-stopping sparkly shirt underneath, and he rippled his shoulders like the proudest, realest swan queen alive.

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