A.I.M by Kyle Abraham
An Untitled Love
Mimi Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
November 6, 2021
Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Making their Cleveland debut Saturday night, A.I.M by Kyle Abraham performed the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship recipient’s latest evening-length dance theater work An Untitled Love. Presented by DANCECleveland in collaboration with Tri-C Performing Arts, the work took inspiration from Abraham’s youth in Pittsburgh and the loving relationships of his extended family.
With dancers costumed in do-rags (durags), turban hair wraps, and one carrying a brick cellphone, An Untitled Love presented a slice of American black life and culture. Set in 1990s Pittsburgh, or a place like it, to a soundtrack of D’Angelo & The Vanguard’s music, the work followed a group of young adults in pursuit of camaraderie and love.
On a set that was part living room, complete with a sofa covered in plastic, an end table, and a house plant, and part what looked to be an outdoor area with an overhead streetlamp, a cast of ten dancers engaged in ongoing social gatherings that delightfully portrayed their youthful experiences with love and its joys, frustrations, and heartaches.
The work opened with the dancers one-by-one walking out onstage. Some moved to sit on the sofa while others milled around them. As this was happening, rather unusually, low-intensity colored stage lights panned the audience giving a sense of being on the dance floor at a club rather than seated in a darkened theater. Up onstage, a trio of women in unison under the streetlamp, broke into a clever shuffling dance that gave the audience its first glimpse into Abraham and dancers’ silky-smooth choreography for the work that unfolded in a slow simmer throughout and carried with it a sort of visual aroma that permeated body and soul.
Gay, straight, and those in-between were represented in the cast of characters who, when not showing off and enjoying each other’s company, were looking to romantically pair off with another. Dancers Claude “CJ” Johnson and Tamisha A. Guy swayed in a sensual embrace while Dorchel Haqq and Gianna Theodore found the depths of desire in one another’s eyes. The dancers whose storyline the piece focused most on, Catherine Kirk as Tina (who claimed to be worldly because she drank Asti-spumante) humorously mimed a voiceover of her dressing-down would-be boyfriend Martell Ruffin, saying that she needed a man with a job and a 401k. Bringing even more comedy to the work was juice pouch drinking and furniture crashing into Jae Neal, whose sassy, good-natured charm stole many of the scenes the dancer was in. Joked Neal in one scene to a male character, “You know you can’t handle all this sugar. I heard you have diabetes.”
Unlike some of Abraham’s prior works, there were no fast-moving group dances, rather several sections were danced in slow motion. Neither were there many shifts in the work’s mood and tone apart from glimpses into a few character’s anxieties and anguishes over love, and one poignant scene performed by Neal and dancer Donovan Reed to a voiceover of NBA basketball coach Doc Rivers’s impassioned speech in 2020 reacting to the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The two dancers in shadowy light tenderly comforted each other as they individually slumped to the ground, symbolizing the message contained within Rivers’ haunting words: “We’re the ones getting shot, We’re the ones that were denied to live in certain communities…It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
Sprinkled into the work were subtle nods to Abraham’s family seen in some costuming and in a photo of his mother that appeared mid-way through the production on the set’s end table.
With understated, yet brilliant dance phrases at every turn, one of the most memorable moments came in a fierce solo by Kirk costumed in a shimmery jumpsuit she donned for a date with Ruffin’s character. In it, she swerved and twisted her body in measured and alluring movement that mesmerized. Her performance carried over to an intimate duet between her and Ruffin that followed, and that captured the essence and beauty of the work’s theme of love in all its facets.
While perhaps not your typical dance production in its approach, An Untitled Love proved a work of quiet genius. With its “fly” choreography, music, and performances of all its dancers, the work transformed youthful exuberance and 90s nostalgia into genuine human emotion.
A.I.M by Kyle Abraham’s An Untitled Love tour continues Nov. 13 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA, and Jan. 28-29, 2022 at the Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling in Sarasota, FL.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor