Friday, February 7, 2014

High Frequency Dance: Kyle Abraham's The Radio Show

(photo by Bill H Photography)
Don’t touch that dial. Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show is dance you can listen to, relatable in the extreme. The award-winning piece, originally conceived in 2010, uses fragments from more than four dozen popular songs, Beyoncé to Michael Jackson, to drive itself rhythmically forward, viscerally connecting with the viewer along the way. Making its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre this week as part of the ongoing World Stage series (the final show is Saturday night), and with additional performances scheduled for Ottawa later this month, The Radio Show is up-tempo choreography that (Gaye-ly) gets it on.

The Motown veined riches of two black radio stations have been mined to form the hip-swaying, toe-tapping backdrop to a piece that is semi-autobiographical in nature. Considered one of dance’s hottest new talents, a status confirmed by Abraham having recently received a prestigious MacArthur (a.k.a.Genius Grant) Fellowship, the 35-year old Afro-American choreographer listened to those AM/FM stations in his native Pittsburgh until they were suddenly yanked off the air in 2009. Around the same time, his father lost his ability to speak, a victim of Alzheimer’s and aphasia disease. The Radio Show, as performed by the seven high-octane members of the New York-based Abraham.In.Motion dance company, is Abraham’s bracingly contemporary mediation on love and loss – one cultural, the other personal – and it is a kick to the head and heart.

Combining the spontaneity and personal expressiveness of hip hop and other street dance vernaculars with the precision of ballet and the exuberance of disco and Afro-accented modern dance, the 69-minute piece is dance in the here and now, a post-modern hybrid. Its many splendoured thangs run a wide gamut. Inspired by the stripped down aesthetic of Merce Cunningham and the multimedia style of Ralph Lemon, Abraham, a former dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and David Dorfman Dance, who today creates for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in addition to his own company, takes an inclusive approach to dance making. Everything that illuminates human experience is allowed in, the human condition, the highs and the lows.

(photo by Bill H Photography) 
The Radio Show
plugs in to these extremes. The show itself is intensely physically, boisterously athletic. But it is also quietly reflective, hand-wringingly poignant in its portrait of familial despair. In between are interludes of genuine hilarity – the phone-in segment of the radio program, the request line, is tastily humorous, involving taped voices of a faraway audience and the one at present. Even though funny, there is something achingly tender about the phone-ins. They are tinged with nostalgia, and also a palpable sense of community, the loss of which Abraham – a self-confessed rave and queer kid – is subtly mourning in his sonic dance spectacular. The intrusion of real human voices into the danced mosaic serves several other purposes: It provides an Eakinsesque jolt of realism in an art form often faulted for wading too deeply into the waters of Romanticism. Thematically, it returns the spectator to the idea of a loss of voice, a fate suffered by Abraham’s father and strongly alluded to in the opening scenes of the dance. One of the dancers, initially so vital, suddenly falters, his palsied hands quivering, and the voice coming out of him becomes a series of soul-degrading, animal-like grunts. The spine-spiralling soul music gives way to static as the dial, so to speak, is turned sideways in his mind. Electronic jabs and stabs, part of an original sound score, amplify the attendant confusion. It’s like listening to the nervous system cranking up without ever getting a solid signal: a radio whose battery has died.

That dancer who plays Abraham’s father begins the evening in the audience, meeting and greeting people as they head to their seats. When the initial strains of Motown fill the auditorium, he starts dancing joyously, propelled in a pure way by the beat of the music, inviting audience members to join him in dancing in the aisles. There are no real takers. But this doesn’t mean the audience isn’t instantly hooked. As the dance continues, the tempo fluctuates. There’s a real soulful moment when a solo dancer moves elegiacally to Miss Aretha Franklin, as the radio host introduces the First Lady of Soul, singing, "Mary Don’t You Weep." Dan Scully’s lighting design darkens at this point. Elsewhere it veers between dance hall and theatre stage, a row of bright coloured lights illuminating the action from behind. Sometimes the lighting serves also to create intimate spaces on the stage. Coffin-like rectangles of white light hold characters sliding down into grief. A circle of light is both an exhibitionist’s arena and the thin edge on which a man in decline attempts to keep his balance, but without success. Sarah Cubbage’s costume of high-waisted, wide-leg disco-era pants combined with tops with giant holes cut into their backs underline the idea that in The Radio Show the dial of life can shift on a whim, turning dancing dandies into drooling human tragedies. But still the music plays on. The women with their hands on their hips, gloriously vamping and snapping gum, strike a defiant pose in the face of all that life wants to dish at them, saying, as they do, funk it.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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