Kyle Abraham turns small moments into big ideas

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      A Chutzpah Festival presentation. At the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Saturday, March 11. Continues until March 13

      Because American choreographer Kyle Abraham’s jazz-inflected work puts you in such a reflective mood, let’s take a moment to consider the rich diversity of dance that has been happening in Vancouver this weekend.

      Downtown, at the Vancouver International Dance Centre on Friday night, the buzz was all about the warped spectacle of Japan’s Dairakudakan, which built to a frenzy of ghoulish characters, cascading red flower petals, and eerie synth music.

       Across town at the Chutzpah Festival the next night, as if in answer to all that sound and fury, Abraham.In.Motion was making its Vancouver debut. And the choreographer was ready to show you can create a different kind of magic with just a few bodies on-stage—in at least a couple instances, with no music and no props at all.

      The opening number, a duet from his yet-to-debut work Dearest Home, took place entirely in silence. But it was a little taste of what really sets Abraham’s swift, light-as-oxygen contemporary movement apart: soul, with a dash of swagger. You can sense the man and woman here, danced gorgeously and charismatically by Tamisha Guy and Jeremy “Jae” Neal, have a history. And in this piece we see them come together, push apart, and play the game of love. This is the same subject matter of a lot of duets, but what makes this one different are the moments where the pair break the action; where the guy, say, relaxes out of the dance to throw a kind of sassy smile at his woman. You can feel a lot going on between these two, and it’s not easy to create that kind of chemistry.

      The fittingly named Quiet Dance also started soundlessly, the magnetic Catherine Ellis Kirk dancing in isolation from four others. This was beautiful dance, with arms arcing and slicing through air, but what made it special was that it seemed to emanate from deep within her—that sense of soul we talked about. It became a perfect embodiment of the subtle sounds of jazz pianist Bill Evans, riffing on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some other time”. Perhaps quietly, but never directly, it was meditating on isolation and division, the way we might treat “the other”—but the way that other can find a kind of calm inner strength.

      These hushed works were precursors for the more ambitious and energized The Gettin’, Abraham’s answer to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of apartheid in South Africa. Dressed in ‘50s-era outfits, the dancers really show their stuff here, finding the rhythms of Robert Glasper’s version of the seminal 1960s jazz piece We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, which also commemorated emancipation and captured the mood of the civil-rights movement.

      The piece is an exhilarating ode to how far we’ve come in those rights and a bit of a call to reflect on where we have to go. Dan Scully’s atmospheric video projections capture black-and-white protest violence from the era, and imagery from the struggles of South African during apartheid (including “Whites Only” signs).

      The piece is rich and multilayered in its dance, as well, with Abraham’s stop-start rhythms playing off the percussive score. Dancers pull off polished jumps and turns, then stop to walk or stare headlong into the audience. There are slight touches of top rocks, jump and jive, and jazz in Abraham’s vocabulary, but they’re so seamlessly integrated into the modern flow that they feel organic. The complex emotions here shift between elation, defiance, and reflection. A gruelling, extended duet between Neal and Matthew Baker climaxes with the men taking off their sweaty dress shirts and tucking them into their waist bands as they dance; then Neal puts that shirt on again, smooths it out, and regains his quietly strong composure.

      Abraham has found a multiracial team of dancers that bring an extra something-something to every nuanced move and they’re riveting to watch. The piece’s closure is moving, with the curtains closing slowly on Guy as she walks confidently, slowly, into the future.

      Rallying cry? Celebration? Yes, but so much more, too; Abraham, if anything, captures the human complexity of history—and its soul.