Suffusing Form with Activism

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Untitled America, Exodus, and Revelations
New York City Center | December 18, 2016

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America. Photo: Paul Kolnik.


Dance can be rewarding for its simple humanity and kineticism, particularly in the hands (and feet, and legs, and torsos) of accomplished companies like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which had its annual month-long run in December. And when the gifted young choreographer Kyle Abraham is commissioned to create a work on such a troupe, a dance can advance powerful, serious messages, as in his three-part suite, Untitled America. This newest work from Abraham focuses on the ripple effects of the incarceration of African-Americans.

There is a rich history of socio-political themes within the Ailey repertory. Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder is a suite based on the plights of slave gangs. (A mounting of this dance in the Ailey repertory was recently done by Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, produced by Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, and won a Bessie Award for best revival.) And Revelations, the company’s popular staple, evokes through movement the gravity and levity of persecution and liberation, particularly the desperate bravado of the male trio “Sinner Man”—a high point of Ailey’s choreographic output.

Like McKayle and Ailey, Abraham employs a movement vocabulary that conjures repeating imagery of incarceration, but which feels specific to our era. A man joins his wrists behind his back as if handcuffed and crumples helplessly to the ground; others kneel, and some are guided as they collapse in spirals to the ground. When repeated, these become a disturbing collective silent scream; they are also alarmingly familiar to anyone who has watched the news in recent years. As dancers hold their hands behind their heads in the surrender pose of a perp., the light flickers along with a rhythmic thwopping, evoking a chopper over a prison yard (Dan Scully designed the lighting and scenic design; Sam Crawford the sound). The gray separates of Karen Young’s costume design are elegant renditions of would-be prison uniforms.

Such dramatic gestures that describe dark episodes are leavened by Abraham’s essential, graceful vocabulary—arcing leaps with the front leg folded, or liberating arabesque turns, sternums uplifted, arms spread wide. Formations such as the center stage column of dancers that opens the work, imply a militaristic order against which individuals chafe and strain to break free. Each dancer bursts out of the formation, only to snap back in line again.

In the final act, the dancers remove their over-vests, perhaps signifying a literal or emotional release. Pairs bound joyfully across the stage, and the temperature of the light shifts from twilight-cool to dawn-warm. The lithe, elegant Jacqueline Green becomes the focus, moving in slow motion as if to absorb a particularly epiphanic moment. The final episode features a man walking slowly upstage, arms opening wide to embrace an invisible gift.

AAADT’s Michael Jackson Jr. in Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Spoken text and songs weave throughout Untitled America, with snippets including phrases such as “I wanna go home,” “show me love,” and “my mom couldn’t give me what she didn’t have.” (Music is credited to Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai, and Kris Bowers, plus traditional songs.) The closing hymn implores, “Father, let me go,” and the alternate: “don’t let me go,” encapsulating the complicated tension between being in the system—in its own ways, predictable and secure—and the ensuing uncertainty of freedom and responsibility.

As the Alvin Ailey company ages, choreographers other than its founder contribute more and more of its repertory. So perhaps even a decade ago, a given program might not have included a Kyle Abraham work after one by Philly-based Rennie Harris, whose Exodus led off the evening. Harris’s style, like Abraham’s, is a unique blend of influences, but is couched in hip-hop and fleet footwork, often performed in sneakers. The muscular Michael Jackson, Jr. is the primary dancer at the start, stepping over scattered bodies that bounce at a sudden bang and then rise up slowly. The pace picks up with the tempo of the music (by “various artists”) until it evens out in a pulsing bass. The cast changes from street clothes to white tunics and track pants, indicating a kind of awakening or emotional journey. The title refers to an exodus from the confines of ignorance and conformity to enlightenment. It was a logical segue to Abraham’s premiere, with its parallel emphasis on liberation from a literal prison.

Revelations closed out the program, as it does a majority of the season’s shows. Its three sections progress from the repentance of “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” through the cleansing three-movement “Take Me to the Water,” and into its euphoric “Move, Members, Move.” The variety among each of the ten movements has offered showcase roles for hundreds of dancers since its premiere in 1960, particularly in “Fix Me Jesus,” this time with a moving Sarah Daley and Jackson, Jr., and “I Wanna Be Ready” with Yannick Lebrun, articulate and daring.

The finale of “Rocka My Soul” makes clear why Revelations is evergreen and still flourishing. Its warm feeling of community; the jaunty downstage rush by the men, elbows akimbo; and the closing movement as they sink to their knees, beaming at the audience, implore an encore. And they receive it.


Susan Yung

SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.