With prestigious awards and a 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” in his pocket, choreographer Kyle Abraham couldn’t be hotter right now. But hot doesn’t mean easy, as Friday night’s challenging program at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston proved. A copresentation of the ICA and World Music/CRASHarts, “When the Wolves Came In” takes on nothing less than civil rights, and it’s one of the most provocative, puzzling, and engrossing dance programs to hit Boston in some time. It’s also spectacularly performed by the company’s eight dancers.
The three works on the program are inspired by drummer/composer Max Roach’s stirring 1960 protest album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” created with writer/singer Oscar Brown Jr. As a “Black gay American man,” Abraham writes in his director’s note, he set out to create a program “to live in a skin well aware of the cyclical hardships of our history, and the very present fear of an unknowable future.” Little in the program is particularly literal, but Abraham laces the three works with subtle, potent imagery that provokes a lot more questions than it answers, which I suspect is the choreographer’s goal.
In the eponymous opener, “Where the Wolves Came In,” set to choral music by Nico Muhly, identity and autonomy get explored beneath a backdrop of shadowy hooded figures. Some of the dancers wear foot-high wigs, one of which is ceremoniously removed, both a kind of unshackling and unveiling. Abraham unspools a fascinating combination of styles — arabesques and elegant balletic turns one moment, booty shakes, cocky struts, and weighted walks the next. Bodies stooped and bent, as if under great weight, seem to powerfully regain their vigor on strength of will. Periodically dancers are on all fours, like creatures harnessed and tamed.
In the trio “Hallowed,” set to spirituals, vigorous shifts of weight and controlled, off-center balances suggest determination and fortitude. Phrases are punctuated by a powerful gestural vocabulary — hands that clench, flutter, and point, arms slicing, heads rolling. Jeremy “Jae” Neal is a powerhouse of isolations that ripple through his limbs and torso.
“The Gettin’ ” has the most concrete allusions, with the ensemble costumed in old-fashioned street clothes and backdrops evoking the black/white separation of apartheid and US segregration. Jetés and kick jumps segue into tumbles and jazzy sequences full of brisk athleticism and earthy weight. The central male duet morphs from unity to confrontation to sensuality, calling to mind the ongoing struggle for gay rights.
Robert Glasper contributed original music, but the ending is straight from Roach’s suite. To the rousing strains of “Freedom Song,” the dancers finally get to cut loose. However, the final tableaux is more solemn, a solitary woman center stage as the singer intones, “I am all the ways I’ve survived . . . ”