BECKET — A cast member of “An Untitled Love,” the 2021 dance by postmodern choreographer Kyle Abraham, called the piece “a black love sitcom dance.”
Abraham, meanwhile, called it his love letter to the neo-soul songs of D’Angelo & The Vanguard. I call it a marriage made in art heaven, a supreme love.
The hour-long immersive “An Untitled Love” is performed this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance by Abraham’s own ensemble of very fine dancers (a handsome dancer himself, he’s also an in-demand choreographer for other contemporary troupes, as well as corporate ballets). Abraham’s choreographic palette is full of sensuous, deeply weighted, expansive phrases that graze the floor with both palpable stillness and expansive grandeur. Its movement weaves and glides to the score of songs sometimes sexy, sometimes insolent, sometimes romantic, always funky from the catalog of D’Angelo. Both were meant to be.
The “sitcom” angle is suggested in the occasional dialogue heard in voice-overs or by the dancers on stage, either at full volume or as the scattered snippets of chatter picked up here and there at a party. Indeed, the series of vignettes, which seamlessly unfold and overlap, now evoke a loud and cheerful house party, now a cozy get-together for good friends.
The decor, with a large sofa, coffee table and floor lamp, could just as easily be taken from a TV show, set in the characters’ living room — there’s even a potted palm tree. Dan Scully’s lighting (he is also the set designer) deftly transports viewers from scene to scene, or subtly directs our attention from one part of the scene to another, like a panning camera. A series of simple and striking drawings and geometric doodles, by Joe Buckingham, are projected on the bottom. The beautiful costumes, by Abraham and Karen Young, are elegantly relaxed at first, although some dancers become more whimsical later in the piece.
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Although we often call it an abstract language, dance can be both powerful and poetic, able to convey ideas, emotions and images beyond the reach of words. Abraham not only fears the body’s ability to express all kinds of humanity, but revels in its innate sensuality – an ideal partner for D’Angelo’s lyrics. The movements of Abraham and his dancers, whether in formal dance phrases or in familiar gestures or eloquent body language, tell us exactly what is going on; while we don’t necessarily need that dialogue, it’s mostly a charming and often funny (cheesy, even, but in a good way) device.
So what is it? Nothing, maybe (like some very famous TV sitcom). Everything, maybe. Friendship, pleasure, surely. The ‘Netflix and chill’ era is invoked in random, fun but brief pairings, but Abraham also channels his parents’ generation – we see swing/social dance bits, evoking the earlier days – and his own memories of childhood from the warmth of family/social gatherings. For all the casual canoodling, however, the timeless search for human connection is evoked in the clear threads of budding love.
Artists in general, and perhaps dancers above all, are often asked (or obliged) to explain their work. Sometimes, it turns out, their creations “are about” something quite serious; in his work, Abraham frequently grapples with the injustices and outright violence inflicted on black lives. But he also talked about the desire to also do dances that celebrate the joy in black lives; and so, while there is a searing section in which a young black man – the excellent Martell Ruffin – hesitates between trembling restlessness, nervous fear and muscular frustration, “An Untitled Love” is infused with joy.
Indeed, a happy fairy tale ending reigns, with each in the cast of 10, at the end, coupled, perhaps even with their soul mates. Tamisha A. Guy and Claude “CJ” Johnson’s lead duo are both romantic and respectful – Guy swoops into Johnson as he lifts and spins her, then supports him as he leans intimately against her. Dymon Samara and Gianna Theodore are still enjoying the first flushes of lust, their visceral physical electricity; they cool individually, Theodore throwing powerful, floating handstands and Samara whipping turns that dive into long arabesques. Jae Neal and Donovan Reed bicker comfortably and affectionately, like a classic version of an “old couple,” but a poignant duet suggests a deep story of care and trust, a mutual haven. Keerati Jinakunwiphat and Logan Hernandez, frisky as puppies, have the simplest fun of the whole bunch, frequently running off stage to, presumably, have another roll in the hay.
We follow the development of the relationship between Catherine Kirk and Ruffin. Alone Kirk is mature and confident, his hands moving up and down his body, creating cascading ripples of motion; she questions Ruffin’s maturity, and indeed, until that sobering section mentioned earlier, his clumsiness, while good-natured, is perhaps also a sign of unreliability. So while their first back and forths are comical, their ultimate commitment to each other runs deep.
That’s all, clearly, love. Should it be named? Maybe doing it – saying what “it’s about” – unintentionally dulls the experience. In his own title, Abraham may be riffing on one of D’Angelo’s tracks in this score, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. Ah, now there is an important question. Forget what it is. How did you feel when you experienced this dance? (My answer? Sublime.)
What: “An Untitled Love (2021)” performed by AIM by Kyle Abraham
Where: McCain Stage, Ted Shawn Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow Dance, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Until July 17
Performances: 8 p.m., July 15 and 16; 2 p.m., 16 and 17 July
Tickets: $55 to $85
Reservations and more information: 413-243-0745, jacobspillow.org