Kyle Abraham brings Black Lives Matter to the center stage in a provocative performance on racial violence.
I’m sitting in front of my computer screen, hunched and tired and frustrated. I’m re-watching the brutal video of the death of Eric Garner for the first time since the video came to light and tears are streaming down my face. And yet, I don’t just feel sad. I’m pissed. Thanks to Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion’s 3-set dance performance last night, I am pissed.
“The Quiet Dance”
The first set opens with silence and a lone dancer on the stage. The soloist Connie Shau beautifully navigates through the uncomfortable lack of sound for what seems like an eternity, but what was likely no more than five minutes. This is an interesting choice and allows you to hear the awkward shifting of the audience in their creaking seats and the obligatory cough and the clearing of the throat here and there. Her movements are both fluid and sharp, propelling her through the silent air with ease. This set is peaceful and yet still carries through it a feeling of sadness and strife.
Shau dances alone on the right and other dancers convene on the left, their movements often mirroring Shau’s. She emphasizes their togetherness; they her loneliness. A.I.M. is based on Abraham’s personal experiences set against larger themes of systemic racism. What this first set explicitly signifies, I will admit I don’t know, but it’s lovely to watch — if “lovely” is the right word.
The energy shifts dramatically here. Using samples of music from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Kanye West, the dancers move in what at first seems like a chaotic frenzy. The line “Perhaps America can’t be turned into the land of milk and honey” repeats as projected images flash across two large screens in the back. We’re given images of protests and riots of the recent past, accompanied by audio of chants and cries against the police. Ferguson is featured prominently with people holding their hands up. Don’t shoot.
I bet many of us would like to think these kind of tragedies happen only elsewhere in the world, that the United States truly is the land of the free, and the home of the brave. But as the dancers traverse the difficult material, writhing and swiping and running, sometimes together, sometimes not, it’s clear that our American dream is not as we once thought it was. Tamisha Guy’s solo here is beautiful despite the heavy matter and the set ends with Kendrick Lamar’s voice echoing “We gon’ be all right.”
The racial tensions rise and the imagery escalates as we are transported to Cape Town during the apartheid. “Whites Only” reads the sign behind the dancers and images of the deplorable conditions of the black population of Cape Town. There’s so much anger and grief on the stage. I was captivated by the desperate, yearning choreography set to feverish jazzy percussion. We see dancers white (Matthew Baker) and black (Jeremy “Jae” Neal) facing off in a literal dance of race against race. The tensions are palpable. And in the midst of all this black and white imagery of what seems like the distant past of a faraway land, we are quickly reminded once again that the apartheid never ended: Eric Garner’s gross mistreatment is played out on the screen, backed by a soundtrack of a woman shouting, screaming, shrilly yelling with low drums rattling.
The segment seems impossibly longer than the silence at the very beginning, as we watch the seemingly non-sequitur events unfold that led to that unjust death. It’s powerful imagery and it was hard deciding to watch the screens or the dancers. I don’t know if I imagined this, but I think I heard a scoff somewhere behind me as Garner’s death played out on the screens.
The New York dance troupe has brought themes of racial injustice and anger to a Portland stage. Portland is a city that would like to think it’s progressive in all areas, especially with regard to racial equality. However, our shining beacon of progressive ideals has a mere 6.3% population of black or African-American individuals living within its borders. And of course, looking around the theater, the White Bird audience was mostly white.
The art feels authentic, White Bird took the risk of presenting this, and yet, I have to wonder how effectively it can reach a mostly white audience. I wonder what these people around me thought of it. Could they appreciate it? Did they think it was unnecessary? How many of them are of the opinion “All Lives Matter?” It makes me wonder. I left the theater feeling sad and angry and empowered. And I hope I’m not the only one.
Abraham.In.Motion is led by Kyle Abraham and is performing at the Newmark Theater, presented by White Bird, through March 12. A.I.M. will also be holding free public lectures and workshops in Portland through March 15.