Review: Kyle Abraham’s Theatrical Love Letter to Social Dance

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The couch is the tip off. Ordinary but comfy-looking, covered in plastic, it’s onstage throughout Kyle Abraham’s newest work, “An Untitled Love,” serving the function that couches usually do. Here it signals that this dance is a house party.

You can tell what kind of party it is by the soundtrack: a playlist drawing from the three major albums by the R&B great D’Angelo. This is sweaty, soulful music, mostly love songs suggestive of the bedroom, with deep funk kept subtle and spare on a low burner so as never to break the mood.

The guests behave accordingly. In this hourlong work, which had its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Wednesday, the dancers in Abraham’s company, A.I.M, come and go as though the stage were just a room in the house. They gather on the couch to gossip and banter. They make moves and pair off and disappear for a while. Or — who could resist these grooves? — they decide to dance a bit.

And because these are gorgeous dancers, that dancing is gorgeous, if low-density: idiomatically attuned to the music but heightened. You can imagine that this is what it might be like to hang with these performers in their off time, watching them get down like the rest of us but casually throw in a killer move or a few perfect pirouettes or briefly sync up for some shared steps. And then go back to chatting, a different version of the same activity. “An Untitled Love” beautifully presents dance as interpersonal communication. It’s a theatrical love letter to social dance.

At first we don’t hear the chatting, and then we do. In a recent interview, the regally elegant dancer Catherine Kirk characterized the show as a “Black love sitcom,” and that’s accurate. This is standard material, not exceptional like D’Angelo’s voice. There’s lots of easy, familiar humor about ashy ankles, McRib sandwiches, church and the unreliability of men — ordinary in a Black sitcom, but not so common at the Brooklyn Academy.

Jae Nael is the main comic figure, sauntering through with a Capri-Sun or some salad, dropping into splits, drinking too much. Kirk resists then gives in to the advances of Martell Ruffin, and in a break for the dancers, we hear her offstage monologue as she gets ready for a date with him, torn between “playing with boys” and the threat of being single for life. After he arrives, they seem, confusingly, to end up back at the first party or one just like it.

That gathering doesn’t sound like the type to attract the cops, but an “Untitled Love” turns darker as D’Angelo’s voice mixes with the crackle of police, or EMT, radio. One by one, the dancers lie face down on the floor, wrists crossed behind their backs (as in several previous Abraham dances). We hear the unidentified voice of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, marveling at how an unnamed “they” talk about fear when “we’re the ones getting killed,” and finding it amazing “why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.” Another kind of love and its obstacles.

And then comes D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” which could be considered this show’s title track. It’s a duet for Kirk and Ruffin, but they’re separated by a neon blue line on the ground. She crosses it to take his weight in tender backbends yet keeps receding into the shadows as their connection remains unstable. Alone, he builds to a broken explosion along with D’Angelo’s gospel scream, a piercing expression of the love inside and all that blocks it.

Neal undercuts the tension with a joke, and we’re back at the party, with the cast gathering on the couch to watch the incredible Tamisha A. Guy and Claude Johnson dance into romance. As theater, there are aspects of “An Untitled Love” I found too easy and familiar, both in the couch-cozy comedy and the commentary. It doesn’t rise to the magic of “Lovers Rock,” the 2020 Steve McQueen film that gets a whole world into a single dance party. But within its good time is a great deal of love.

‘An Untitled Love’

Through Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music;


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