By Jessica Lockhart
What Kyle Abraham has done is to conjure up a wonderfully confusing vision into the myriad possibilities raised by the cycle of death and life again.
A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth, presented by Celebrity Series at the Shubert Theater, Boston, November 18.
A requiem is a composition that honors the dead. And there has been so much death of late, and not just from the past 2 years of the pandemic, that it makes timely sense that Kyle Abraham created a dance that explores death rituals and rebirth. It should not be surprising that Abraham’s evening length dance was more about searching for answers to inscrutable questions than serving up solace.
As the curtain opened we saw 10 dancers standing still onstage. As they slowly began to move they started looking over their shoulders and then all around the space. They are confused, and cautious. We hear the recognizable beginning of the Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, which instantly sets a solemn mood. The music builds in intensity and emotional force with the arrival of the full choir. The dancer’s movements also began to increase in speed as the members commenced to work together as a group — this became a drama of mutual assistance, of aiding others in an emergency. If some of the dancers tipping over, others came to help, supporting them before they fell. They had become a mass, an ensemble — no one was isolated.
But, suddenly, a dancer began shaking and dropped to the ground. This triggered a moment of paralysis: the other dancers stopped and observed the fallen performer. The music abruptly changed to loud electronic beats as though we were at a dance club. The transformation from classical to techno music was unnerving. From here on the sound accompaniment was by Jlin, a contemporary composer who, according to the program notes, had supplied his eclectic transcription of Mozart’s Requiem. As the dance continued, the soundscape segments mixed both styles of music together. The electronic approach predominated until the final scene, where Mozart’s original Requiem returned.
The dancers’ movements throughout were lush and bold. Entering into small groups, the performers partnered, dancing with each other, moments of tenderness mixed with wild abandon. There were exquisite solos and duets that showcased how enormously skilled the members of A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham are. The depth and strength of the movement was both beautiful and physically impressive, from deep sensual squats to the extension of legs skyward, the dancers holding the balance forever.
Still, while the choreography was riveting, the piece didn’t develop its concerns, probe its theme, at least not clearly. The bulk of Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth is dedicated to searching and looking for … something. But what? And was this a quest in earnest? I ask that because there was a sharp, baffling change of tone at the performance’s conclusion: the dancers became silly and almost facetious. This was surprising and deeply unsatisfying. I left the theater thinking ‘what had I missed?’ Why were the performers joking around? How did that fit in? Perhaps the dead feel a relief that the mourning survivors don’t? Or is the message that life goes on?
The ambiguity also made me wonder about the setting. Were we watching people in the afterlife? Dead but reliving how they had lived and died? Or were we seeing scenes of their rebirth? There were times when cliques of dancers seemed to be evaluating and noting to each other what another group was doing. Were they trying to genuinely understand others? Or were they just being judgmental and petty? Whether we are dealing with the living or the dying we seem to be confronting the human. What happens to our more undesirable traits when we reach the afterlife? In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, death erases our individuality. In contrast, Kyle Abraham says that he is interested in the “vulnerability of human life and the possibilities beyond.” He is looking through a lens of Afro-futurism to see if his ancestors can shed light on our enduring questions about death and beyond.
There is a compelling sense of the beyond in Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth. Outstanding costume design by Giles Deacon created an otherworldly feeling, as did the lighting and scenic design by Dan Scully. The set’s curious visuals added intriguing visual components to the mystery. We were presented pulsating pictures of what looked like vital organs from inside our bodies. Was the glowing orb a planet or an eyeball? The backdrop’s bold color changes suggested it was signaling transitions through different stages of rebirth. An image of a young child and then a baby also intimated time was somehow moving backward — or beginning again.
There are no answers for these or the many other questions raised by Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth. Nothing tidy or transparent here. Instead, what Kyle Abraham has done is to conjure up a wonderfully confusing vision into the myriad possibilities raised by the cycle of death and life again.
Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award-winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.
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