In Kyle Abraham’s “Dearest Home,” audience members encircle the stage while dancers move under the waxing and waning lights above. The room itself is noiseless, with only the soft thuds of the dancers’ leaps and turns audible to spectators. Viewers dare not shift in their seats, at the risk of violating the sanctity of the silence. From four sides of the stage, they stare transfixed into the universe that is constructed before them—one that brims with pain and honesty, and very much mirrors their own.
This weekend marked “Dearest Home’s” Connecticut debut. Exhibited at the Wesleyan Center for the Arts Theater in three separate performances, the show displayed 65 minutes of Abraham’s choreography, which was originally staged as a 90-minute show at The Kitchen in New York City. Though Abraham choreographed the piece to silence, audience members had the option to listen with provided headsets to a recorded classical score by Jerome Begin, which allowed them to be privy to a sonic experience that the dancers didn’t have access to.
The result was a sense of remoteness that formed between performer and viewer. Whether standing in complete stillness or moving across the stage in large, ravenous strides, the dancers retained their gazes above their lines of sight—or at one another. Rarely, if ever, did they lock eyes with audience members, even though the first row of spectators sat in chairs on the performance stage. This lack of interaction contributed to the construction of an alternate realm in which only the dancers existed, an experience only aided by music that didn’t seem to really exist. Put on the headset and feel you can enter their world. Take them off and wonder if the sounds were ever real.
The artists featured in “Dearest Home” comprise Abraham’s company, Abraham.In.Motion, which includes dancers who hail from diverse personal backgrounds and schools of dance. On stage, they interact with profound intimacy, emphasized by extended embraces, but as sweet as these moments are in transience, they also possess the capacity to grow sour in an instant, exemplified by jerky, more incisive strokes. These changes in quality of movement demonstrate how pain and rejection figure heavily in warmth and affection. Often, more labored and frantic movements follow richer, more supple ones, and we are reminded of how comfort and pain ebb and flow to dance around each other.
Pain in “Dearest Home” takes shape in choreography that conveys a disconnect between two or more dancers. At one moment they may be performing synchronized movements or weaving their bodies around one another, exploring the negative space that exists within all of us. But then a dancer begins to tremble or wave their arms, becoming a bird that can’t quite fly. Suddenly, a wall—much like the one that exists between viewer and performer—forms between the dancers, and the communication and expressions of intimacy are cut off. In “Dearest Home,” it appears that pain is often synonymous with solitude, and healing only begins when we shed ourselves of the parts that hurt.
Clothing is a salient trope throughout the show, with dancers disrobing themselves and one another in moments that express tremendous vulnerability. In the beginning of the show, they don vibrant pastels and floral prints, establishing ebullient characters amidst somber and emotionally fraught choreography.
Nakedness and the removal of clothing represent a sense of exposure but also liberating renewal. At one point, a male dancer strips down to his underwear in a suspended, collected manner, patiently folding his shirt and pants before setting them down in a clean pile on the stage. In a culminating moment, he sets his head in his hands and begins to cry, producing the only staged sounds throughout all of the show. For one instant, the barrier between audience and performer is broken, and it was difficult not to extend a comforting hand to this weeping, vulnerable human.
“Dearest Home” isn’t the first of Abraham’s works to deal with pain. His choreography, set on Abraham.in.Motion and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, have often juxtaposed pain alongside narratives of urban youth, police violence, mass incarceration, and civil rights struggles. “Dearest Home” doesn’t provide audience members with such concrete contexts. Instead, viewers must interpret what pain and vulnerability mean to them or explore how pain afflicts us all universally.
Abraham makes this easy for viewers, as he sets movements on dancers that hinge on the communication and engagement between them. In moments of harmony, dancers groove in whimsical duets, exchanging contagious eye contact that conveys mutual fondness and endearment. But then there exist the more hollow moments that come after, when this communication gets lost in some type of flawed translation, and movement becomes the only thing to fill the lapses. The options following are to continue moving through the pain or to disrobe and re-comport oneself, because the effervescence of yesterday will eventually and inevitably return.
Nobody knows this more than Abraham himself, who in his choreographer’s note, wrote that in the year before announcing “Dearest Home’s” world premiere, he lost his mother and ended his relationship with the man he thought he’d marry. For Abraham, this choreographic work was simultaneously a product of the pain he felt so deeply as well as a remedy to it.
On stage, Abraham’s dancers don’t offer viewers axiomatic advice on how to live through pain. Just as loss and solitude imbue the texture of movements in “Dearest Home,” they are also a mainstay of love and humanness. Sometimes, pain is beautiful and tender, and makes way for warmth and healing. At other times, we grow asphyxiated in our very struggle to express it. However, if “Dearest Home” were to leave audience members with a single epigram, it would be that we must aim to express our anguish with extraordinary authenticity, to include those we love in our mourning and celebration. Such is how walls between us crumble.
2016 Doris Duke Artist Award recipient and 2015 City Center Choreographer in residence, Kyle Abraham (Pittsburgh, Pa.) is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. Previous awards include being named a 2012 USA Ford Fellow, a Creative Capital grantee, and receiving a 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. In 2010, Abraham received a prestigious Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance in Dance for his work in The Radio Show and a Princess Grace Award for Choreography in 2010. The previous year, he was selected as one of Dance Magazine’s 25 To Watch for 2009.
Viviane Eng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.