Kyle Abraham – When the Wolves Came In – Provoking the senses, less so the thoughts


Catherine Ellis Kirk and Jordan Morley in Kyle Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Catherine Ellis Kirk and Jordan Morley in Kyle Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

It’s been years since I last saw Kyle Abraham’s work Inventing Pookie Jenkins at the 2007 New York City Center Fall for Dance. It was a solo piece with much deserved buzz in a reputable venue to showcase his refreshing style. Needless to say I was eager to see his group work when his company Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion toured to UCLA last week.

When the Wolves Came In (2014) demonstrates this artistic director’s inventive movement vocabulary which has apparent dance influences ranging from hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, and contemporary. The steps and styles may seem divergent but the resulting choreography was fluid and captivating.With each additional moment of watching came greater appeal, because it was apparent that Wolves didn’t rely on existing style categories or dance lineages. Seeing Kyle’s innovative choreography, I am certain that he is a contemporary foundation for the future of dance. I live for the moments when an artistic creation is inevitable–where the combination of elements were meant to be. Wolves gives a gratifying coalescence of movement, theater, and music in live performance.

Kyle Abraham’s Hallowed. (L to R) Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Tanisha Guy, and Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Kyle Abraham’s Hallowed. (L to R) Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Tanisha Guy, and Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

In Wolves, the dancers’ execution was so precise, so focused. They had the enviable balance of control and abandon and such command of the work with their dancing. The way the dancers assertively took the stage with their technique and individual performance qualities made more of an impact for me. Once my focus was drawn, what was next? The novelty and intrigue of such a new visual experience engaged me more than the topics that Kyle was exploring with his work.

The first of three sections showcased the skills of Kyle’s choreographic style the most and was the most ambiguous, featuring some dancers in beehive wigs and some without, or changing tableaus of wolves morphing into beings. It was followed by Hallowed, set to gospel music sung by Civil Rights movement vocalists. It held the strongest connection with me. The backdrop projections in the last section, The Gettin’, depicted images from South African apartheid to the recent Eric Garner assault. At the end of this final section, a single female figure returns to the same scenic backdrop that was set in the first section–a stark, raw wilderness. The figure is now seen clothed and matured, suggesting individual evolution towards a new role in civilization. The combination of scenic design, wigs and costume, and choreography abstractly suggested identity roles and power struggle in relationships between living beings.

Kyle Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In. Photo: Ian Douglas

Kyle Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In. Photo: Ian Douglas

My friend who came to the show had comments that echoed my own. What is he saying? During intermission she mentioned the (brilliant, MacArthur Fellow) playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. My friend related how in Parks’ work, she aims to not depend or draw on typical devices addressing Black oppression. But in critiquing her work, she had the same response–then what is she trying to say? The description for Wolves calls it a work that “explores the historical legacy of two totemic triumphs in the international history of civil rights: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa.” And in a previous interview with the choreographer, Abraham says, “when you put that Black body on stage with any other dancer, the story shifts based on the history that whoever is watching it has already experienced. Whatever your experience is – if you’re seeing a Black body and a white body, a Black man and a Black woman, and Black man and a white man – all of those things have their own kind of politic to them.” Kyle’s company includes dancers of many skin tones and while there are many aesthetic choices involved when casting a dancer in a role, his work did not rely solely on the placement of Black and non-Black dancers in this work that explores segregation.

Kyle Abraham’s The Gettin’. (L to R): Tanisha Guy Connie Shiau, Winston Dynamite Brown, Catherine Ellis Kirk, Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Matthew Baker. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Kyle Abraham’s The Gettin’. (L to R): Tanisha Guy Connie Shiau, Winston Dynamite Brown, Catherine Ellis Kirk, Jeremy “Jae” Neal, Matthew Baker. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Wolves did not land on overarching, poignant messages. As an audience member, I don’t expect to be presented with easily-read concepts. But since dance is a time-based artistic expression, there is a greater opportunity to develop ideas and take an audience on a journey compared to another artistic medium such as painting, and to relate concepts to the here-and-now human experience. My satisfaction was staid from the intellectual challenge of considering answers to questions that were not formed. It was like a beautiful, relevant font that spelled words I could not read. While it was not clear how every dance’s staging, setting, or costume piece related to the themes of the dances, they were statements in and of themselves. The combination of seeing them on stage contributed to a unique and vibrant experience. I commend Kyle for his inspiration from the subject matter, for his time and work in exploring the concepts with his dancers, and for sharing such a powerhouse creation.

As usual, the superbly eloquent Kristy Edmunds took the helm before the CAP UCLA performance and magnified the value of this dance work with her words. Her reverence to art is apparent, and I know her words and support of artists make a huge impact for the audience, and in the LA dance community. She is an ally for the arts, and I’m thankful for her.

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