Sadler’s Wells, London
November 17, 2017
Kyle Abraham’s reputation preceded him, and the company’s London debut lived up to all expectations. Inspired by John Singleton’s film Boyz n the Hood and the writings of civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, Pavement, is an expression of Abraham’s life experience growing up in Pittsburgh. The predominantly black Hill District, which Abraham knew well, had been side-lined by ill-planned city redevelopment, bringing decay and dereliction and giving free reign to drug dealers and gang warfare.
Set on a basketball court, Pavement has its roots in the gritty social context of inequality and racism, but the dance rises to a transcendental plane finding fresh ways to talk about ancient prejudice. Abraham has a varied choreographic language; rich in tone and timbre and ranging wide, supported by an equally eclectic choice of music, including classical and jazz plus Sam Crawford’s mix of sounds.
It is Abraham himself who opens the show in a laid back, jazz solo, his movements liquid and earthed. His style, emulated in his dancers, five men and one woman, is powerful and rhythmic. They move with equal ease on the floor or in the air, each bringing their individual strengths to the work. It is a high velocity piece and Abraham is never reluctant to use their power and virtuosity, or indeed their very personable charm.
The relationships reveal a range of feelings from distrust to comradeship, competition to aggression in dynamic partnering. The lone woman, Trinidadian, Tamisha Guy, treads a distinctive path. Wearing a red vest reading, ‘Guard’, she is the voice of reason, standing apart from the fighting, a strong female presence who never tries to be one of the guys.
The visuals, videos of urban decay and destruction, and snatches of text are judiciously interspersed throughout the performance. The music, sometimes the grandest of Baroque opera, is interrupted with disturbing sounds of crying, gunshots and a voice calling, ‘help me!’ Rather than distracting, the contrast serves to underscore the context.
The drama is signalled in subtle gestures and glances. Most poignant is the repeated laying out of dancers face down on the stage, with hands trussed behind their backs. It is a position that stirs a maelstrom of emotions, a constant reminder that freedom is never certain and race issues have not been resolved.
If this were just about the power and beauty of the dance that would be enough, but it is the way Abraham’s movement speaks so clearly of the real world, that makes Pavement a revelation. Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, has promised more of Kyle Abraham’s work and, for me, it can’t be too soon.