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A woman backs slowly into a strip of light lying along the floor of the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow. She holds one end of what appears to be an endless piece of paper. You only realize its actual length when a man, Dai Jian, appears out of the wings, holding the other end. Facing each other, the two gradually begin to lean backward. Braced like that, with the paper a taut road between them, they could be workers in a paper-making business, but as they start to twist and bow forward and tip the scroll, you sense the beginning of a struggle.
City of Paper isn’t the first piece that Yin Mei has made about the China she grew up in during the early, cataclysmic years of Mao Zhedong’s Cultural Revolution; I still remember her exquisite Empty Tradition: City of Peonies (1998) and Nomad: The River (2005). Paper was a part of her world. Her birthplace, Luoyang, was once not only a city famed for its peonies; it was a center for scholars and for paper-making, and her family was part of that culture. Her reticent, but potent intersections of dance, media, and music in the new piece create images of how the art of papermaking and the laying of ink on it changed in a single year, when the Revolution uprooted ancient traditions, made the planting of peonies a crime, and harnessed paper production to the spreading of propaganda.
Richard Marriott’s score, Sam Crawford’s sound design, David Ferri’s lighting, and the live performance by violist Stephanie Griffin create an environment in which sweet melodies can be swallowed by crackling noises and gusts of wind. In the visual design—Tennessee Rice Dixon’s image projections and animation and the choreography by Mei and dancers—repetition gently presses pictures into your brain. A black-and white film clip of a crowd loops over and over behind the action; there’s the smiling woman again, there’s the older one tying her headscarf. In another fragment, a man, bare to the waist, pulls a wagon behind him loaded with what could be tree-trunk sized rolls of paper, while passersby in modern dress stare at him (or at the camera). The sight of him reaching behind him, without stopping, to get a jacket and put it on is so mesmerizing that I almost miss what’s happening onstage.
In a perfectly synchronized duet for Mei and Kanako Yokota, the women—wearing white tops and black pants—move along a sheet of heavy paper that has been unrolled with a startling snap from the wings; they repeat the same movement phrase several times, and then face the back wall and do it again. The two spool out the movement as if it were an exercise in calligraphy—their coiling hands and arms and softly sinuous torsos fluent but precise. Whether the source behind the choreography is writing or some other exacting task, the dancers are serene. At the end of each phrase, they lie down briefly, curled on their sides, as if to put a period on a thought or signal the end of their day. At this point, the seven closely aligned screens behind them show images of birch trees, a source of fine paper.
Not all the images suggesting calligraphy have that purity. When Kota Yamazaki dances two brief solos, he rapidly traces uncanny elaborations on the air; his knees swivel and bend, his stepping feet twist and club momentarily; there’s not an iota of stillness in him. It’s as if every “word” is flowering into all its possible meanings at once.
In the question and answer period following the performance, Mei mentioned going through the corridors and rooms of the compound where, I gather, her family lived and worked, and being confronted daily by the Cultural Revolution’s use of strong, slick paper for posters with slogans urging, exhorting, and cautioning the people of this brave new world. Savoring the beauty of distinct types of paper or pausing to consider the poetry of language before gliding black brushstrokes over a white surface were traditions that had to be suppressed. No longer would there be time to balance a single, kite-sized sheet of paper on end in one hand and examine it in all lights, as the dancers do (this sequence, however lovely, seems drawn-out).
Mei, dramaturg Peter L. Critchell, and the other colleagues offer no harsh critique of Mao’s political and social designs; Mei’s childhood seems to have been relatively unstressful (I thought I recognized her youthful face among a row of portraits). The issues involved in Mao’s upheavals are raised obliquely. Ocean waves acquire red froth. Clouds sometimes pass over the faces in the films of crowds surging or school children reciting. The live performers become shadows or press their faces against a translucent panel that suddenly drops down in front of them. You can interpret a duet between Mei and Jian as a sensitive calligraphy of desire or as a kind of forced re-education. When the four performers slowly cross the stage in a constantly—wonderfully— evolving cluster, you can see both a complex art and adaptations to a shifting social climate; tumbling, leaning, climbing over, slipping through, the dancers seem at peace with the need for resourcefulness. In a second duet for Mei and Yokota, the women rarely rise to standing; they fall out of unison; they switch directions. Often, when supine, they lift their heads to stare at something. Performing a remarkable solo, Jian falls like a stone into the curled-up position that the women earlier assumed so quietly.
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.
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.
Abraham makes fine movement. He knows how to vary it on the body—sometimes the dancers’ arms move alone; maybe the legs take over; maybe limbs-head-arms-body unite to spurt into action. He knows how to slide unison into counterpoint, to let one person start a phrase and the others feed in; to have dancers take turns replacing one another in an ongoing sequence. The performers are terrific: Parker in a notable solo of warring emotions and states of being that really strikes sparks off Aretha Franklin’s singing; Samantha E. Farrow and Raymond Pinto in a duet; Chalvar Monteiro, Rachelle Rafailedes, and Maureen Wright.
In contrast to this almost-too-rich stew with its diverse, jostling ingredients, Abraham’s new work, Op. 1 (developed in part during a Jacob’s Pillow residency), is a spare, sophisticated, visually stunning exercise in black-and white (although Sarah Cubbage’s simple outfits for the dancers are in muted colors). The dance happens behind a partial scrim and mostly within an area on the floor defined by two bars of fluorescent light. The collaboration between Abraham and photographer Carrie Schneider yields a stop-start prelude film (projected on the scrim) of two dancers using a board to mark off in chalk (and cut?) lines on a black cloth that is then picked up, leaving a pattern on the filmed floor. Other related grids of chalk lines intermittently move on the scrim, along with filmic flashes of whipping arms and legs.
Abraham’s ideas for Op. 1 were triggered by the photos of Eadweard Muybridge—still shots of runners and wrestlers that, arranged linearly, create a simulation of action. You needn’t know this to appreciate the dance. Abraham plays with the notion of a pose that melts into another or alters in a series of small, sharp moves. Some of these attitudes were drawn from the Muybridge photos, as was the wrestling duet between Pinto and Durell R. Comedy and the messier bout between Rafailedes (what a dancer!) and Wright. The spare music by Ryoji Ikeda supports the atmosphere elegantly.
In tune with the designs that Scully’s lighting lays on the floor and the images on the scrim through which we see the dancing, the six cast members often line up to frame the action. They’re exact in the positions they assume over and over—sometimes sitting or lying down in different arrangements. But the movement is also often energetic; the performers leap, writhe, lope along, thrust their limbs into space. Nor is Abraham one to avoid the human element. Pairs intermittently meet and embrace. At some point, Wright climbs laboriously up Pinto’s back to sit on his shoulders.
The ending didn’t quite work the night I saw Op. 1—something to do with the timing of the fadeout and the last gesture—and the audience sat in the dark wondering whether to applaud. The piece deserved that applause. It affirms Abraham’s talent, his openness to new ideas, and his progress as an artist.