Hip-hop darling Kyle Abraham: A better soloist than choreographer

Kyle Abraham is known for his fluid, distinctive dance style, but his new show at On the Boards makes it clear his talent is as a dancer and not yet as a choreographer. 

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Dancer Kyle Abraham in his signature sequins.

Kyle Abraham is known for his fluid, distinctive dance style, but his new show at On the Boards makes it clear his talent is as a dancer and not yet as a choreographer. 

There’s no doubt that Kyle Abraham is a dynamic and talented dancer, the kind of performer you can’t take your eyes off whenever he’s on stage. In the case of his full-length work Live! The Realest MC, that makes his opening and closing solo sections, where the jelly-like Abraham rises from the floor on his elbow and wrists or undulates his sequined back to the audience, the most memorable. 

But a few solos do not a great ballet make and although Abraham has assembled a talented troupe who throw themselves whole hog into his athletic choreography, the 60-minute Live! lacks coherence. Although Abraham hints at a theme — coming to terms with his homosexuality and his growth as an artist — there are only a few segments that clearly connect to it and they seem out of place with his more abstract, pure movement sequences.

Abraham’s choreography is an interesting blend of hip-hop and contemporary dance with lots of swooping, leaping, and drops to the floor. He saves the most inventive steps for himself, balancing on the knuckles of his toes and showing off his elegant line in a series of beautiful extensions. In his opening solo, as Abraham juts his head forward or twists his legs first inward then outward, he resembles a newborn foal finding his balance for the first time. It’s a striking sequence and raises expectations for the rest of the piece.   

But those hopes are soon dashed. Abraham’s movement vocabulary is limited and, after a while, the other pure dance sections become repetitive. This is especially distressing given the skill of his dancers, who seem capable of far more nuanced choreography. With their finely pointed toes, powerful legs, and ability to isolate the tiniest muscles, the dancers can surely pull off more than the jerky, tense gyrations that Abraham gives them.

Apart from Abraham’s solos, the other star of Live! is the production design. Huge vertical blinds, white on one side, black on the other, line the back of the theater. Sometimes they are open and form a series of horizontal strips against an ever-changing colored backdrop. Sometimes they are closed and take on the color of the lighting projected onto them — blue, green, orange, pink, gold.

Sometimes they become a video screen for scenes of young men running from pursuers on a back street, weeds growing out of a concrete wall or a hilarious YouTube video in which a southern white woman explains — badly — how to perform hip-hop. Her total cluelessness is made even more obvious in a later live sequence when Abraham offers a send-up of authentic hip-hop.

The visual effects on the blinds are enhanced by Dan Scully’s lighting designs for the stage floor. He uses the same candy-colored spectrum to create circles, triangles, and other shapes to collapse or expand the performing space and, if it isn’t always clear why the lighting effects change, they provide most of the visual appeal of Live!

The industrial, electronic score adequately conveys the urban environment Abraham is exploring but, like the movement, becomes tiresome after a while. The exception is Bill Evans’ haunting “Peace Piece,” which serves as a fitting music bed for Abraham’s closing solo.

As he crouches to the floor, then rises, removes his jacket, and turns his back to us, shirt sparkling with silver sequins, Abraham provides a touching conclusion to what has been a rambling personal journey. That journey may make sense to Abraham, but it left this viewer with a few strong visual images and not much else.

Abraham is something of a darling of the downtown NY dance scene. He was born in Pittsburgh and his work is infused with that city’s late ‘70s hip-hop culture. After graduating from college, Abraham danced with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and has been performing with David Dorfman Dance since 2007. Whether appearing with Dorfman Dance or his own company, Abraham wins accolades for his charisma and style; more than anything else, Live! made me wish for a full evening of his solos. 

If you goLive! The Realest MC by Kyle Abraham, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, through April 22. Tickets $25 and are available at the box office, by phone 206.217.9888, or online at www.ontheboards.org


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