Often when the word “ambitious” is used to describe choreography, it’s a veiled way of saying that artists bit off more than they could chew, that the work became too big and aspirational for its own good.
But Abraham.In.Motion’s Saturday show at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park was ambitious in the very best sense of the word: Choreographer Kyle Abraham took on complex, hot-button topics and handled them ably and honestly; he unleashed huge volumes of movement that were mind-bogglingly detailed and varied; and perhaps most importantly, he revealed himself to be hungry to keep innovating.
Abraham presented a trio of works inspired by Max Roach’s 1960 album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” which was released as the civil rights movement was building to its fever pitch. Abraham examined the relevance of the album’s themes in today’s culture. How far have we really come on racial equality? How free is any one of us in a society that is still grappling with these questions?
The set design provides one chilling answer. The backdrop, created by Glenn Ligon, is an image from a Ku Klux Klan rally. By altering the exposure and clarity of the photo, the contents of the image are nearly indecipherable. But the pointed shape of the Klansmen’s hoods is just recognizable enough, a statement that these ugly racial prejudices are fading, but they are still there if you look closely enough.
“When the Wolves Came In” is brimming with contrasts: Movement frequently is initiated with the back of the head so the dancer looks to be diving out in space with a sense of unrestrained freedom. And yet such sequences are followed by a tableau in which one woman beckons another woman by gesturing to her like a dog owner offering a treat. The inhumanity of it is despicable.
The one frustration in this work was that the dancers were entirely imperturbable. Their movement was so intoxicating that you desperately wanted them to let you in, to show you how these thorny issues have affected their own hearts and minds. But they never really did. Abraham’s voice is loud and clear in this work, but the dancers are not really heard.
Thankfully, we get more from them in “Hallowed,” a short, tightly knit dance that is set to a cappella gospel songs. The movement here was syncopated and specific, with the dancers’ spines synchronously melting into ooze and their arms crossing and uncrossing like in a game of cat’s cradle. The dancers hardly travel through space, a choice that reminds us that the forward march of progress sometimes comes in fits and starts.
The final work, “The Gettin’,” is intriguing, though it is perhaps the most unfocused of this suite of dances. The work seemed to hit a climax at least twice, first when Jeremy Neal and Matthew Baker ceremoniously stripped off their shirts, revealing the purest versions of themselves, after a duet full of manipulation and aggression. But later, when tiny Tamisha Guy bounded around the stage, back to the audience, clawing and scratching at an imaginary foe, suddenly the dance seemed to again swell to an apex. Better pacing and shading could make this already powerful work hit even harder.
The feel of the whole evening was refreshingly of-the-moment: The steps were new and original, and Abraham’s tone felt relevant to today’s conversation about race. Even the slinky jumpsuit costumes worn in “Hallowed” were on-trend and Instagram-worthy. In an art form that is struggling to lure younger audiences, it was a welcome treat to see a program that was so inviting to a new generation of theater-goers.