By Rachel Straus
The PillowNotes series comprises essays commissioned from our Scholars-in-Residence to provide audience with a broader context for viewing dance.
By the thousand slow revolutions of his body, he gives the appearance of a magician busy at obliterating the traces of his handiwork.— Jacques Rivière, "Le Sacre du Printemps"
The best magicians, and the best dance makers, conjure worlds out of thin air. But bones and flesh are dancer’s tools, and they aren’t exactly the stuff of tricks. In the quote above, Rivière praises Vaslav Nijinsky, the dancer and choreographer who—critics said—could metamorphose like a chameleon. Kyle Abraham and Camille A. Brown began making dances in different places and under different influences. However, both of them soon became captivated by those qualities ascribed to Nijinsky: The capacity to evoke different emotional states, to assume multiple identities, to transform audience perceptions. In the 1990s, Abraham and Brown formed their bodies into dancers, and they began to explore human metamorphosis. They apprenticed to be magicians. Both possessed excellent raw materials: fiery physicality and intense imagination.
In 2007, Abraham and Brown created solos that catapulted their choreographic careers. In The Evolution of a Secure Feminine, Brown channeled more than a dozen female personas: Some comic, others poignant, all heavy on chutzpah. Brown’s marriage of movement motifs (from vaudeville to jive) pronounced her a historically astute choreographer. In Inventing Pookie Jenkins, Abraham performed Pookie, a part street tough, part swan character, who warred with him self, ricocheting between a kinesthetic fury and a languid serenity. Abraham’s radical alterations—smooth to sharp, vulnerability to aggressive—produced a seismically shifting landscape.
With this engagement, Abraham and Brown are sharing their first program. The choreographers are no strangers to each other. In fact they’re friends. Fifteen years ago they met as students at the Ailey School’s Summer Intensive Program. “I saw Camille dancing,” said Abraham, “and my jaw dropped. She became someone else.” When they graduated from college dance conservatories, they joined notable American modern dance companies. In the mid 2000s, they began dedicating themselves to choreography and to forming their own companies. Abraham and Brown share other similarities. Each performs in their dances, which is all to the good. They are inimitable movers. Both are Princess Grace Award winners in choreography. In 2010, Jacob’s Pillow’s presented their companies at the Doris Duke Theatre. The new works they presented were made through the Pillow’s Creative Development Residency Program.
Early this year, The Pillow’s Executive and Artistic Director, Ella Baff, asked Brown and Abraham if they would present a shared program, and as part of it, create a new work together to perform. She offered them a Creative Development Residency to develop their work. “We always wanted to create a duet,” said Brown. “We’ve actually been trying for years.” Called Kyle and Camille, their program isn’t a choreographic collaboration, except for the aforesaid world premiere duet. It will be an opportunity, said the dance makers, to consider their work side by side. Abraham will present two works, Brown three.
The newest work by Brown is inspired by the minstrel show, the American-born theatrical tradition in which performers danced and sang, often in black face. “I’m drawing from Minstrelsy’s ability to entertain,” Brown said about her work in progress. “I don’t want my work to be a PBS special.” That said, Brown doesn’t skirt racist realities of late 19th-early 20th century minstrelsy. Stock characters such as the slave, dandy and mammy are implied in the facial expressions and gestures of Brown’s dancers. Playing these demeaning personas, Brown explained, produced a schizophrenic identity, and then a “breakdown.” But before the psychic crash occurs, Brown’s ensemble captivates through sharp-edged, polyphonic-footed phrases that are as furiously fast as the cartoon that will be projected.
In Abraham’s new work The Quiet Dance, the choreographer privileges the lyrical, serene side of his movement aesthetic. The piece begins with Abraham alone on stage, spiraling through space in silence. His first gesture resembles Tai Chi’s solo hand movement, in which the palms encircle an invisible object the size of a book. When Abraham’s dancers join him, a recording of Bill Evans’s “Some Other Time” and the ensemble’s circular movements foster a reflective mood. Dancing to music, shows Abraham, is a form of meditation. The abolitionist writer Wendell Phillips believed that “The heart is the best reflective thinker.” For Abraham reflection occurs through the whole body.
This spring, during their Creative Development Residency at The Pillow, Abraham and Brown talked about how they make dances, recording their sessions on tape. Their dialogue has become the springboard for their collaboration, which takes the form of a duet. Though their processes are different, they agree the act of choreography is largely intuitive. They laugh at questions about whether there is a road map for making dances. Mystery reigns, they say. They engage fast-moving performers who, like them, dance with equal parts strength and passion. Their dances evolve through collaborations with performers, composers, and visual artists. Ideas about the human condition are metamorphosed into dance through bones and flesh. Then, as Rivière writes, magic occurs: “Movement closes over the emotion; it arrests and contains it; by its perpetual change in direction.”
© 2011 Rachel Straus and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival