Think of the 1991 classic Boyz n the Hood and contemporary dance is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Written and directed by John Singleton, then a 22-year-old film student, the movie tackles the effects of gang violence and crack cocaine on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. For many, the movie was a revelation: the first real depiction of inner city life and the state of the black American male. Among those admirers was Kyle Abraham, now a successful choreographer, artistic director of Abraham.In.Motion, and recipient of the 2013 MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
Twenty years after its release, Abraham was struck by the film’s relevance in a society plagued by continuing racial conflict and discrimination. In response, he “reimagined” the film as a dance work titled Pavement, a reference to the streets and courts of the historically black Hill District in Pittsburgh where he grew up.
The 2011 work, which makes its Atlanta premiere at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts on Friday night, also calls upon W.E.B. Du Bois’ collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to examine swagger, aggression, love, pain and vulnerability in a neighborhood under constant threat of gang violence.
Despite the volatile themes he addresses in Pavement, Abraham’s inspiration was much the same as Singleton’s for Boyz n the Hood. Both approached their works without a specific political agenda, just a desire to represent an underrepresented community and to see African Americans in the audience, on stage and on screen.
Abraham says he doesn’t want to be “pigeon-holed” into making works that reflect his experience as a gay African American man but adds, “It’s undeniable that who we are shapes what we do and how we do it. Because of race and the history of racism, whenever a black dancer is on stage, that’s its own political statement.”
When a choreographer can divorce himself from race and gender, as did the legendary postmodernist Merce Cunningham, he is “unintentionally acknowledging a place of privilege,” says Abraham.
Abraham is quick to call Cunningham a source of inspiration; the latter choreographer’s emphasis on clean lines, minute detail and unpredictable direction changes are often evident in Abraham’s work. Former Martha Graham Dance Company member Tamisha Guy, the only female in Pavement’s cast of seven, says she feels “at home” with Abraham’s movement vocabulary. Slashing arms, fast floor work and leaps repeated in quick succession are often punctuated with hip-hop grooves and theatrical vignettes.
Much of Pavement, like many of Abraham’s works, was created through improvisation. In one recurrent theme, a dancer grabs another dancer by the wrists, places his hands behind his back, then pushes him to the ground facedown. Abraham says the gesture was originally devoid of meaning — just a shape derived from improvisation — but later, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, it became charged with images of police brutality.
Pavement also incorporates spoken text that includes the n-word, a choice Abraham says has been received with varying levels of aversion throughout the country. “It’s a word rooted in hatred,” he says, that unfortunately has been repurposed as an expression of love and friendship in both the black and white communities. “When we were fighting to be seen as equals, words like ‘brother’ held so much more weight. But for whatever reason, once we became more integrated, it became important to recognize some sort of hierarchy. To enforce the class system within the same race.”
What “brother” built up, the n-word tears down. That self-hatred is crucial to persistent racial conflict and racism, both of which existed in 1991 and still exist today. Pavement, says Abraham, is intended to raise questions that incite a dialogue among viewers: “What are we doing, how are doing it, and how are we thinking about change?”
Though the piece isn’t a literal translation of Boyz n the Hood (hip-hop music and sounds of gun shots mingle with Bach and opera), the dancers, clad in nineties sportswear and loose flannel shirts often tied around their waists, look the part. Guy says the role is a total shift from her usual quiet nature. Both in movement and voice, her character is direct, feisty and loud. “I hear myself yelling in the theater, and I think: Wow, this is me, but not me!”
As the sole feminine presence in a piece intended to examine masculinity, she says she knew she “had to be strong to keep up with the guys.” For Guy, who loves fast movement, “keeping up” doesn’t refer to speed but to aggression. She calls the movement “hard-hitting” and “unforgiving” but revels in the chance to “hold her own” on stage.
Among those guys is Kyle Abraham himself, often a dancer in his own work and a gifted improviser. Sharp in focus yet rough around the edges, Pavement should offer some exciting insight into Abraham’s creative process. And given his many recent accolades and expanding touring schedule, it’s clear the rising choreographer will have much more to say.