Look how many languages I speak: Abraham’s voice stands out at City Center’s Fall for Dance

 In 2021, Best Of, Critical Drafts
Words by Celine Kiner | Images by Stephanie Berger

New York turned out in fine form for City Center’s opening Fall for Dance program on Thursday night. The theater’s second evening back in action folded a hopelessly stunning Kyle Abraham mood piece between STREB acrobatic precision and revived Verdon Fosse glamour by way of NYCB’s Georgina Pazcoguin. The flow matched the restless energy of an audience ready to move again — loud and bold, then thoughtful, and joyful to finish.

An intimidating line to check vaccine records dissipated quickly — let’s be patient with our venues, folks — into a crowd rowdy with anticipation. Elizabeth Streb’s showy, vocal and virtuosic Molinette, Add / Pole Vaults and Air gave us a chance to get the jitters out, with the guidance of emcee Felix Hess and a t-shirt cannon.

Streb has mastered the riff on repetition and variation. She pulls everything out of a concept, whether it’s falling over a single axis lofted twenty feet high or the entire cast plummeting face first from a trampoline. Air is explosive, celebratory, and the perfect length: her strength is knowing how long she holds your attention. This is not the Diavolo boat number, not the circus. Streb’s work fits especially well into the Fall for Dance format, in short bursts that keep you holding your breath for the next big feat.

The camp of the supersuit-clad STREB action heroes act is justifiable in the company’s niche, not to mention that it’s flat-out entertaining no matter how much of a stage snob you are. To see the joy in the performers’ bodies, bubbling over their return to the stage, is adrenaline enough, and a 20-minute portion was just right to feed the audience’s energy.

Abraham’s Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song followed long pause (but not an intermission) to reset the tone. I’ve seen his work live, but only on companies beside his own; this new work is absolute proof that he has a special pocket for A.I.M and it is deep and bold, collecting gems all the time. The artists have a particular kind of expertise to them that isn’t breath or articulation, though they have both in abundance. It’s soft strength and an ability to cut the space no matter how gently or swiftly they move.

The prelude breathes, allowing the ensemble to listen to each other and find their footing in unison and a few tableaux. They settle. In the solos (and a duet), it’s as if Abraham is saying “look how many languages I speak.” The company echoes, “look how many languages we move.” He pulls from different drawers of his vocabulary and weaves them seamlessly into each other, into his own signature tongue. Donovan Reed is all rib and hip in the most delicious club steps as they are woven into his captivating charisma; Cat Kirk is wisdom with ease in a gestural but not excessively performative window into practice and habit.

Gianna Theodore in Little Girl Blue makes you see the floor as a romantic interest somehow — the way she caresses it, flows with it, responds to it makes it desirable. Abraham drops a few edge-of-your-seat stops and slow moments that keep you glued to the soloists. One of the signals of his mastery is that he doesn’t fill space that doesn’t need filling. CJ Johnson stews in the slow burn of Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind. He holds shapes that speak volumes. And Don’t Explain with Reed and Jae Neal gives a complexity that this type of duet has been begging for since the beginning: what happens to love when it falls out of sync?

As Abraham enters this period of demand, I love that he reserves his best for a company of stellar Black and brown artists. Let’s put more Black art on our stages, inhale and devour it, bask in its beauty. Abraham’s is stunning; there are many many more prolific Black dancemakers we can lift up alongside him, not to mention Black artists in other mediums.

Verdon Fosse Legacy’s revival of Sweet Gwen Suite was light fare to cleanse the palette after the layers of life Abraham’s piece painted on the stage. Georgina Pazcoguin was a bit too lifted out of the floor for my taste but relaxed into herself at the helm of the trio, despite the jolt of pre-recorded snaps and claps in the track. But I found my attention drawn to Zachary Downer, who embodied the groove so naturally, all play and no force. The historical reconstruction of the work was a reminder that sometimes you can just enjoy the classics, which it seemed the audience really did.

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