Review: Kyle Abraham takes on Cunningham and, as always, love
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Review: Kyle Abraham takes on Cunningham and, as always, love
Jamaal Bowman, left, and Donovan Reed in “MotorRover,” a Kyle Abraham dance, at the Joyce Theater in New York, April 4, 2023. Abraham and his company, A.I.M, returned to the Joyce Theater with a program of mixed repertory, including new dances and a Bebe Miller solo. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Kyle Abraham has a mission — and it’s bigger than himself. He likes to spread the love with his company, A.I.M, and, in doing so, broaden the viewer’s experience of what a dance concert by a choreographer-led company can be.

The A.I.M season at the Joyce Theater expands on that idea in multigenerational ways, too, with a resonant performance of “Rain” (1989), a solo by Bebe Miller, who began her choreographic career in 1978. She means much to Abraham, who, in his program note, writes: “Her work speaks so much to the dance-maker I hope to be.”

Although brief, “Rain,” performed Tuesday by Tamisha A. Guy, has a scorching power. To music by Villa-Lobos and Hearn Gadbois, Guy stands in front of a patch of grass, moving her rounded arms and fluid fingers unhurriedly — as if they’re some sort of protective barrier — before sliding to the floor, resting in an X shape and zipping her body back up again. There was a silky luster to how calmly she shifted through jagged positions; in one repeated phrase, she stretched her legs wide, bent a knee and scooted to the side. Eventually, Guy, exacting and understated, rolls onto the grass, weary yet not defeated.

The program has new offerings too, including “Uproot: love and legacy,” a work for five dancers by former company member Maleek Washington to live music by composers KAMAUU and Kwinton Gray. A meditative journey through relationships and love triangles with a blossoming tree standing on one side of the stage — scenic design is by Lee Beard — the work showcases romance in silent stories that sprout and droop like flowers. But however lushly it connected to the music, “Uproot” swooned along in a similar way.

Abraham’s “5 Minute Dance (You Drivin’?),” to electronic music by Jlin, places two couples in space and shows the choreographer’s affinity for detailed, precise fluidity, sending the dancers veering off course and spinning back into place. Like its title indicates, it’s brief. Was it necessary on an overlong program? It was fine, but Abraham’s remaining two works were the show.

“MotorRover” is a transplant of a duet originally shown online in 2021 — a response to an excerpt from Merce Cunningham’s “Landrover” (1972) that was part of a program produced by Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Cunningham Trust.

Abraham is known for his use of popular music — recently, he has choreographed substantial works to D’Angelo and James Blake — so it was good to see what he could do with a dance in silence. Sleekly performed by Jamaal Bowman and Donovan Reed, “MotorRover” is both sly and sensitive as it melds the formality of Cunningham’s vocabulary — jumps that come out of nowhere, balances that test resoluteness and more — with everyday gestures, slipped in without hesitation. When the dancers freeze for a moment, holding their arms in disdain, they stare at each other before executing a shoulder brush and moving on. Abraham dishes out humor with love.

The choreography expands on Cunningham by loosening it up. Bowman and Reed found breath in their torsos and arms, which added softness and motion to precisely held shapes. “MotorRover” is more than a study or a response to a task; Abraham shows sparkling authority at mining an intimidating work to make a dance worthy on its own. (The season also features an alternative cast with two women. I could have watched it twice.)

Abraham is also known for loving love. His closer, “If We Were a Love Song” (2021), set to Nina Simone, steers its way somberly, though not exactly gently, through love and heartache as Simone’s voice seems to pour out of the dancers’ bodies. Moody in a dark-restaurant way, Dan Scully’s lighting casts the stage in deep, earthy hues while striking wintry gleams of light onto vulnerable faces and muscular shoulders and backs. Intimate and searing, “If We Were a Love Song” doesn’t just tell one story, but a world of them.

The work starts off with a cluster of dancers moving more or less as one as they sink and rise from the floor, maintaining, to different degrees, a sense of touch. After the group opening, the dancers splinter off into solos and duets that excavate the depths of sadness and desire along with fortitude. In “Little Girl Blue,” Gianna Theodore’s enthralling serenity paired with her groundedness just about made time stop. Others were striking as well, like Jae Neal and Reed, who are knitted together throughout “Don’t Explain” until a haunting, final exit.

It was a brave way to end a night: No bells, no whistles, only dancers unearthing feelings that spiraled from their bodies. Abraham excels at so many aspects of choreography, among them instilling traditional movement with the gestural language of Black life and street dance or showing the subtle difference between slow motion and stillness. But what is most admirable, at least for me, is the way he is able to lean into patience. He takes his time, just the right amount. As you watch his dancers, you could be floating, too.

A.I.M by Kyle Abraham

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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