There are some darker images, one of which is extremely enigmatic. The projected photo of a seated, masked figure swims out of darkness; he resembles the monkey god of Indian myth. A drawing of a woman floats up toward him. He becomes large and suddenly mobile, taking her into his arms. Copulating, they drift into darkness, and the woman dwindles in his embrace.

In City of Paper’s most shocking scene, Jian and Yokota sit side by side, bent over, their backs—now bared—to us. They might be awaiting punishment. Mei enters and carefully pours a column of thick ink over each of them. Coursing down Jian’s spine, the black line gives him for a few seconds the illusion of having a queue, like that of a long-ago Chinese man. One after the other, the two roll over the white-paper floor, their spreading gestures and soaked black trunks creating a haphazard, deformed calligraphy of scratches and blots.

The ending is startling in another way. Mei holds up a blank horizontal scroll. Bit by bit, black words appear on it: “On a blank sheet of paper the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.” The words are Chairman Mao’s. Mei’s statement could be both ironic in relation to China’s past and hopeful for its future. Regret and acceptance tremble in the balance.

Yin Mei’s City of Paper, Dai Jian in the foreground.
Ruppert Bohle.
Yin Mei’s City of Paper, Dai Jian in the foreground.
Kyle Abraham in his Inventing Pookie Jenkins.
Kristi Pitsch
Kyle Abraham in his Inventing Pookie Jenkins.

Details

Yin Mei Dance
Jacobís Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts
August 14 through 8

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion
Jacobís Pillow
August 11 through 15

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Choreographers’s individual voices tend to emerge through a thicket of influences: the teachers they studied with, the dance companies they were part of, the music they grew up with, the culture of their time and hometown, their family and community values. Never has this been quite so ebulliently obvious as it is in Kyle Abraham’s works. It’s not that he copies anything; he just runs much of what he has experienced through his personal shredder. Aspects of him—the postmodern thinker and deconstructionist with an MFA, the lover of hip-hop who values street culture, the student of classic modern dance styles, the delver into cultural history, and the gay black man—unite in two of the pieces that he only began to show professionally in 2006.

His breakout solo from that year, Inventing Pookie Jenkins, was included on his company’s program in Jacob’s Pillow Doris Duke Theater. The opening image is stunning. Framed by Dan Scully’s softly glowing lighting, Abraham sits with his back to the audience, his bare, muscular torso emerging from the long, white, net tutu puddled around him. No escapee from Swan Lake could wreathe her arms around her head and behind her back with more gently preening sensitivity than this. The accompanying “music,” however, is the sound of sirens and gunfire and angry voices.

Once up, Abraham’s no swan. Now his full skirt, bent-kneed treading, and mobile arms and torso call to mind a ceremonial dance from one of the West African countries, even when he’s grooving to a harsher beat. Amazing the way he drops into a sit and rises on a dime. The rapper Dizzee Rascal provides gangland tirades via an enormous boom box sitting onstage. Now the man in the tutu has a swagger in his walk and affects a limping gait. He threatens, hunkers down, and punches air. “I’ll make you respect me if it kills you” (I think I heard that), but also, as Abraham, lip-synching, ventures up the aisle: “I love you, group.” Then he shoulders the boom box and exits, cocky as hell in his fluffy skirt.

The provocative overlay of imagery in Inventing Pookie Jenkins is clear, even though enigmatic and open to various interpretations. The Radio Show, new last spring, is a little less unified in its blend of elements. It’s as if Abraham wanted to mix everything he knows and likes about dancemaking with recollections of two, recently shut-down community radio stations he grew up listening to in Pittsburgh, plus the sad fact of his father’s currently dissolving memory. And, in doing so, to pay homage to both losses. The blend is often daring, and disturbing in a powerful and interesting way, although sometimes the disjunction between the movement messages and the array of funky musical selections and talk- show snippets can make the piece seem to drag. A couple of times I find myself thinking, “What does this passage of dancing have to do with the thrust of the piece?”

Abraham’s opening solo is marvelous. He’s feeling good, rocking and reeling, his muscles oiled. But suddenly he’s staring severely at us, as if wondering why we’re here. A needle scratches on a record, and he slowly melts into an old man’s stoop, one hand trembling, as he walks slowly away. Amber Lee Parker follows him, a watchful attendant.

Those movements, transformed, appear intermittently throughout the piece. In the midst of a richly physical bout of dancing, someone’s hand will shake, someone’s back will round, someone’s head will wobble, someone will lean on another person. Radio announcements abort the many musical selections; listeners call in, air their marital grievances, vote for the tune they like. A strip of lights at the back turns red, blue, and occasionally blazes so brightly white that I can’t see what’s happening. Paths of light appear on the floor, one for each of the dancers. I go from being enthralled to feeling jerked around.

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