Dance Review: A.I.M by Kyle Abraham shares the love at Jacob’s Pillow

A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham performs "An Untitled Love" at Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires. Photo by Jamie Kraus.
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Seeing Kyle Abraham’s dance company A.I.M. perform An Untitled Love at the Ted Shawn Theatre last week at Jacob’s Pillow—the world’s preeminent dance festival—felt to me like a homecoming on many levels. As a lover of dance in all its forms, proximity to the Pillow was a huge factor in why I moved to Berkshires so many years ago. I feel at home every time I stroll across the bucolic grounds. It was there that I first saw Abraham in his early days—so many years ago—when he burst onto the stage, bare-chested, in a full-length tutu, toting a boombox, in his groundbreaking 2006 solo Inventing Pookie Jenkins. Watching his career—and those of other emerging choreographers—evolve feels like something of a touchstone.

The grounds of Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, site of the renowned dance festival which marks its 90th anniversary this summer. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

While the Pillow held its 89th annual summer festival last year (after the dark COVID summer of 2020), it was a much-diminished season. A fire destroyed the Pillow’s smaller stage, the Doris Duke Theatre, in November 2020, and the Ted Shawn Theatre was undergoing renovations to upgrade the HVAC and other aspects of the historic, rustic building to improve the experience for performers and audiences alike. With no enclosed theaters in the summer of 2021, ticketed shows were held on the stunning outdoor stage, which is usually reserved for free performances. While it’s undoubtedly the most beautiful stage in the Berkshires, it’s also open air, and thus subject to the vicissitudes of weather. Last summer was exceptionally rainy, and a good number of Pillow performances were canceled. So this week, just entering the Ted Shawn Theater to see my first performance there in many years (not counting the tremendous show the Pillow put on for its season-opening gala) was already an emotional moment.

As was seeing the continuing evolution of Abraham as a choreographer in this new work. In the intervening years, Abraham has been a Pillow regular and an internationally acclaimed dancemaker; he won the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2012, as well as a MacArthur “genius” award. I had moved to California for seven years, returning in 2019, just before COVID hit; it felt right that my first show back in the Ted Shawn Theater was this one. I imagine bringing An Untitled Love to the Berkshires must have felt like a homecoming for Abraham, who polished this hour-long piece with his company in a fall residency at the Pillow.

The Ted Shawn Theater, built in 1942 as the first theater created specifically for dance in the United States, is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. Photo by David Dashiell.

Pillow performances typically begin with a brief introduction from executive and artistic director Pamela Tage, but not this one. Filing into the theater, the audience is greeted by retro-soul music and an uncurtained stage set with a sparkly plastic-covered couch flanked by a floor lamp and a side table, with a fern behind it. This feels familiar; it’s sort of an iconic signifier of a living room—you know it from television shows ranging from All in the Family to The Simpsons. Indeed, in a New York Times interview, A.I.M. dancer Catherine Kirk described An Untitled Love as a “Black love sitcom dance.”

To be sure, there’s much levity in the piece, but it’s not a comedy. As the dancers enter the stage, one-by-one or in small groups, it’s clear the scene is set for a social gathering, which already pulls the heartstrings as we recall the time spent in isolation over the past few years of this pandemic. The movement is natural, as the dancers, primp and preen, forming clusters, exchanging small talk, banter… It’s a casual gathering of friends—a chill vibe supported by the mellow funky soundtrack of music by D’Angelo. The audience feels welcomed in to this houseparty.

We hear humorous snippets of conversations—a woman dissed for having ashy ankles gets a laugh from the audience, as does statuesque dancer Catherine Kirk, saying, “Let me tell you what I’m looking for in a man.” Martell Ruffin persistently makes his case for why he should be that man, and by the end of the first party section, Kirk agrees to go on a date with him, much to the surprise of her girlfriends, gathered to gossip on the couch (in a brilliantly choreographed sequence).

Throughout the dance, couples of all varieties pair off in romantic duets reminiscent of social dances—rhumba, merengue, cha cha, salsa—but with more smooth, supple spins and graceful glides that sweep the dancers across the stage. There are no sharp edges in these dances, and while the movement looks relaxed, the dancers are uniformly precise and fleet-footed. They radiate warmth for each other.

The houseparty segues into an extended section in which we overhear Kirk offstage preparing for her date, talking to herself about how he’d better treat her right, get her French cheese, like Brie, not Kraft. But the humorous tone changes when she emerges in a loose, elegant jumpsuit; Ruffin greets her, without his jokey bravado from the houseparty. They languorously dance together under a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage.

A.I.M by Kyle Abraham in An Untitled Love. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Another tone shift addresses the plight of people of color people in America: under that same spotlight, one dancer stumbles, and as another tries to help him up, he crumples. A cluster of dancers, largely obscured by darkness, depart from the mostly grounded, mellow choreography; they leap like furies downstage of the spotilt duo, then one-by-one gradually collapse to the floor. The anguish is palpable. One can’t help thinking about the killing of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile… and so many other Black Americans whose lives have been cut short by police. During this segment, we hear the (uncredited) words of NBA coach Doc Rivers, addressing the fear-mongering of politicians: “…all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot…It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

A.I.M by Kyle Abraham in An Untitled Love. Photo by Jamie Kraus.

This heartbreaking segment is followed by a somber duet between Kirk and Ruffin, in which, through movement, he reveals his vulnerability, and she physically supports him, portraying her strength. They dance together downstage, in front of a thin blue line of light. She periodically moves upstage, disappearing into darkness, only to emerge again by his side. It’s a lovely, slow, segment full of extensions and weight transfers, through which their love for each other becomes apparent.

Catherine Kirk and Martell Ruffin in An Untitled Love. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

The final segment returns us to the brightness, to the couch, to the houseparty atmosphere, a gathering of friends, a community full of love that enjoys each other’s company—and each other’s foibles—buoyantly dancing duets, joyfully living and loving, despite the difficulties they endure beyond the walls of home. Kirk and Ruffin take their place as a couple among their coupled-up friends in this haven from the darker forces outside—home is where the heart is, where love can be expressed without fear.

D’Angelo’s mellow funk music is deeply woven into the choreography of An Untitled Love. The name of this work kept bringing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to mind, though I can’t say if that jazz classic was a reference point for Abraham. The lighting is also integral, adding emotional resonance, from the red and blue backdrops with projections of graffiti-like illustrations (African drums, turntables, records…) by artist Joe Buckingham during the party scenes, to the masterful use of darkness in spotlit segments and the lovers’ downstage duet. This work will next be performed in August at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and in January 2023, at the Newman Center in Denver, Colorado. If you love contemporary dance, it’s worth making the effort to see it.

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