A.I.M by Kyle Abraham: Captivating Groove and Humanizing Hope

An Untitled Love is a dance narrative of mythic proportions, told by a prophetic company of artists in the spirit of Abraham. A movement story of personal and communal transformation achieved through the relationships formed between the dancers and a deepening of the human condition. Kyle Abraham leads his company of collaborating artists in modeling a new paradigm of honest-being in the body, rich with stories and steeped in culture. 

The block party-vibe was felt in full swing as colorful lights flashed and bold beats filled the air of the Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus as part of their Visions and Voices series. A.I.M enticed a full house to the SoCal performance space as seats were sought out to get everyone a place for the free show of this world renowned company. An Untitled Love, five years in the making, and choreographed by Kyle Abraham in collaboration with the A.I.M company members, speaks, grooves, and floats through a collage of stories surrounding first romantic love, but also community, familial, cultural, and self love in turn. 

Man looking lovingly while supporting a woman in an arch backward.
Tamisha A. Guy and Claude CJ Johnson in An Untitled Love by A.I.M. Photo by Christopher Duggan

With the set dressed by Dan Scully as an informal living room complete with standing floor lamp, patterned area rug, a plastic covered couch, side table, and potted palm tree, the audience was immediately invited into the intimate and private space of a home. Set against Joe Buckingham’s projected sketches of turntables, LPs, sneakers, speakers, congas, and African-art inspired faces, the space was both rooted in an urban world of the 80’s but also blended in a contemporary presence through abstracted elements of color, shape, and light. The time and space of the work was further influenced by the costume design by Karen Young and Abraham, featuring 20’s style, high-waisted, pleated trousers, satiny camisoles, Africanist head wraps, and functional do-rags. The result was a scene that was both temporal and timeless. 

The cast of ten dancers (Jamaal Bowman, Tamisha A. Guy, Keerati Jinakunwiphat, Catherine Kirk, Jae Neal, Donovan Reed, Martell Ruffin, Dymon Samara, Kar’mel Antonyo, Wade Small, and Gianna Theodore) entered gradually greeting and regarding each other with ritualized head nods, smiles, handshakes, and embraces. As they entered the space, we learned essential information about each of them through their posture, breath, and skillful use of eye contact. We came to know who was reserved, who was playful, who was mature, and who was the goofball. This establishing scene set the tone for the evening of portraiture through movement. Like a painting, each character was portrayed and developed through nuanced choices that revealed insights into their human experience. Abraham dropped us into worlds of elegant women seated on the couch, streetwise men ball changing their way across the blacktop, a tentative and sensitive female-female romance, and a larger than life voguing performer turned beaten and cuffed. Each of these stories, like a postcard received in the mail, shared a facet of the Black experience as known through these characters. 

Tamisha A. Guy and Claude CJ Johnson in An Untitled Love by A.I.M. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Early in the work, the ten dancers formed five couples which we would trace and track through the arc of the movement narrative. The conviction of the characters is what sets this work apart from other dance trends of today which more heavily rely upon visual design or athleticism as the driving factors. An Untitled Love, by contrast, relied on narrative clarity as executed through subtle shifts of weights, unaccented gestures, and purposeful forms of relating, to shape space and time for the audience. Ranging from the subtle heightened awareness of another dancer across the stage to being fully entangled in interlacing support, the relationships between the dancers united the whole of the dance experience into magical moments fully attended through precise use of time, space, body, and energy. Each of the dancers performed their role with brilliance, finesse, patience, and purpose. 

The musicality of the work, set to a mixed tape of R&B artist, D’Angelo and The Vanguard, appeared in strong moments of social dance groove and subdued, but equally well-timed glances and emotional reactions. The dancers artfully navigated between casual pedestrian movement vocabulary (walking, standing, conversing), familiar classical vocabulary (arabesques, passés, and balances), buttery modern floorwork (rolling, sliding, spiraling), and social dance grooves (bouncing, rocking, stepping) with such ease that the impression was that the entire work was made by, for, and with these facile bodies. The technical ability of the dancers to do more than code-switch between the stylistic dance genres was profound as they transformed and bridged themselves moment to moment in service of the narrative. Buoyant in a spring, anchored in a lunge, suspended in an arabesque, and entrenched in rhythm, the dancers inhabited each moment with clarity and purity. Their performance as a whole was nothing short of divine. 

Catherine Kirk and Martell Ruffin in An Untitled Love by A.I.M. Photo Johanna Austin

Abraham as director in turn utilized the variety in movement vocabulary and broad dynamic range to generate highly crafted movement conversations. Call and response through the body as well as through the voice. In this way, it wasn’t so much about what the dancers did, but how they felt while dancing the material. They posed questions, answered their truths, and wove themselves into the tapestry of this world. Unified by the movement vocabulary and a deeply embedded sense of timing, their individualism came out in the approach they took to the movement that in turn propelled the narrative forward. They might be looking lovingly at their partner, reflecting on an inner impulse, flirting with someone, or gossiping with a dear friend all while executing a shared movement phrase. While highly crafted, the fresh embodiment of the interactions made it feel spontaneous because it felt so real. The use of unison between partners created a contract of social connection. Combined with the use of the partner as the dancer’s focal point, the dancers were squarely rooted in a rhythmic pocket of shared togetherness. Each movement element of the performance offered insight into home life through small exchanges that evoked not only characters but also places, relationships, personal, and cultural values. Bursts of athleticism or technical prowess– a sustained inversion, multiple pirouettes, balances in extension or dynamic contemporary floorwork– did not dominate the narrative landscape but conveyed the tremendous skill and facility of the dancers while driving the work forward and maintaining the complex textural fabric of the stage. In this way, each detail contributed to the ethos of the work.

Technically speaking, the seamless sound edits by Sam Crawford continually drove the work forward through D’Angelo’s hit playlist. Strategic use of body mics allowed the dancers to speak at key points, while discarding the lumpy mic packs for the moments of full dancing. The use of pre-recorded voice further smoothed out and unified the use of voice as a vehicle for storytelling throughout the show while allowing the full dancing moments to be free of wires and clunky technology. The lighting design, also by Dan Scully, was most often saturated in rich colors, with additional pools of crisp white back lighting to illuminate the three dimensionality of the dancers in featured moments whether on the couch, or on the street outside the apartment. Strip LED lights framed the top and bottom of the space, further establishing the proscenium nature of the work. The framing of the work through the lighting strips underscored the titular reference of this work being like a visual art piece. The title, An Untitled Love, evokes imagery of this dance as its own untitled artwork, a study in pursuit of love or conversely of love as an artistic pursuit. 

The edges of the proscenium were later blurred in the climatic solo/duet by Martell Ruffin with Catherine Kirk. This point in the show highlighted the transformation of Ruffin’s character from over-eager, excuse-making homeboy, to a vulnerable mature man shaped by immense hurt and struggle. As part of the duet, Ruffin stepped carefully across the threshold of the performance space marked by the LED lights, crossing the line between art and life. There, with him largely facing upstage, back to the audience, he and Kirk interacted in sensitive embraces in which one would drop into the low level to be slowly drawn upward through the loving strength of the other. They met each other at this line of the proscenium again and again metaphorically confronting the reality of their insecurities, challenges, frustrations, and fears. Kirk’s strong female character who had given him so much flack earlier in the show, comes to love and be loved by this man striving to overcome the odds and claim his strength and dignity. Together they find the strength to hold each other up and stand tall. 

Woman and man dancing together. Woman is in an arabesque with a silver jumpsuit and headwrap. Man is lunging with a blue tank top and grey trousers.
Catherine Kirk and Martell Ruffin in An Untitled Love by A.I.M. Photo Johanna Austin.

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