BECKET — Kyle Abraham may be from Pittsburgh, but you can’t blame regular attendees at Jacob’s Pillow for feeling that whenever Abraham comes to the festival, a favorite son has come home. Each year that he or his company, Abraham.In.Motion, has appeared, the young dancer/choreographer’s steady and exciting growth is evident. In 2012 he was the annual Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient. The larger dance world is noticing, too: This year brought a commission from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This fledgling is soaring.
And maturing: “Pavement,” the absorbing and finely constructed 2012 evening-length dance that he and his company are performing at the Pillow this week, is an investigation of race and violence. Abraham’s seeds of inspiration include two sources nearly a century apart, the early writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and the 1991 movie “Boyz n the Hood. ” The first, decades after Reconstruction, warns against complacency among African-Americans along the road toward equality, while the second is a plea for people to see violence within their own communities as a hopeless abyss of self-sabotage.
Abraham manages to be wholly serious about his subject without preaching, and — trickiest feat of all — presents us with something that is both art and entertainment.
Music is also a muse here, as it usually is for Abraham. The score includes sound and dialogue snippets from “Boyz,” opera arias, and a few songs sung by Sam Cooke, a hodgepodge that seems incongruous but in fact works rather well, in the same way that Abraham’s movement vocabulary blends ballet and hip-hop so organically. Of course, many contemporary choreographers use a similar mash-up of genres, but I find that the way Abraham’s dancers move, from a lower center of gravity, as particularly lush. He and his six dancers seem to both whisper and growl across the stage, a floating pirouette or expansive leap melting into a slide or a roll on the floor. They are comfortable in their bodies, because they are comfortable in the choreography: It makes sense.
Likewise in the overall structure of the piece, in which few moments are announced as transition. As with the score, the dancing is linear; the solos, duets, trios, may be fragments, but they make up a clear whole, like a mosaic.
Abraham reminds us of the dramatic raison d’être of “Pavement” in ways that are both disquieting — a dancer will force another to the ground into a prone position with hands behind the back as if handcuffed, perp-like — or threatening, as two dancers bump into each other and skirmish. These motifs occur briefly, often so subtly that the other dancers aren’t aware, or if they are, don’t betray any surprise; this judicious pacing makes room for the piece’s more overtly theatrical moments. Abraham does take the spotlight at those times (one scene begins with him sweetly, comically hustling the others but dissolves painfully as his voice breaks, choking with tears) although he shares the majority of stage time with his dancers, indeed cedes much of the full-out dancing to them. Standouts in this cast — really, all soloists in their own right — are the transcendent, silky Rena Butler (the only female), the sleek Chalvar Monteiro, and the husky, wary Maleek Washington.
It’s not easy to create a work like this, that though it can be called dance theater is almost fully composed of movement and yet still tells such a clear tale. It’s also not easy to decide to tell it — I won’t say without humor, because there are strains of levity — but without a kind of happy ending, to reassure us that all’s well in our multiracial land. Abraham leaves us with an image that is beautiful, tender, and also tragic: two “perp-piles” (three dancers stacked protectively), and Abraham lying alone, discarded and forgotten like the empty bag of Doritos at his side.
It’s not cathartic — How can it be? Why should it be? — but it is provocative, in all the right ways.Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.