Review: Kyle Abraham's theatrical love letter to social dancing

The couch is the tip. Ordinary but comfortable, covered in plastic, it is on stage throughout Kyle Abraham’s new work, “An Untitled Lov...


The couch is the tip. Ordinary but comfortable, covered in plastic, it is on stage throughout Kyle Abraham’s new work, “An Untitled Love”, fulfilling the function that sofas usually perform. Here it signals that this dance is a house party.

You can tell what kind of party this is by the soundtrack: a playlist taken from all three major albums by R&B great D’Angelo. It’s sweaty, soulful music, mostly bedroom-evoking love songs, with deep funk kept subtle and spared on low heat so it never breaks the mood.

Guests behave accordingly. In this hour-long work, which made its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater on Wednesday, dancers from Abraham’s company, AIM, move back and forth as if the stage were just a room in the house. They gather on the sofa to chat and joke. They make moves and pair and disappear for a while. Or — who could resist these grooves? — they decide to dance a little.

And because they are magnificent dancers, this dance is magnificent, even if it is low density: idiomatically in tune with the music but heightened. You can imagine that’s what it might be like hanging out with these performers in their spare time, watching them get off like the rest of us, but casually throwing a killer move or a few perfect pirouettes or briefly syncing up to a few shared steps. And then back to chat, a different version of the same activity. “An Untitled Love” beautifully presents dance as interpersonal communication. It’s a theatrical love letter to social dancing.

At first we don’t hear the chatter, then we hear. In a recent interview, majestically elegant dancer Catherine Kirk called the show a “black love sitcom,” and it’s true. It’s standard material, not exceptional like D’Angelo’s vocals. There’s plenty of easy, colloquial humor about ashen ankles, McRibs, church, and male unreliability — common in a noir sitcom, but not so common in Brooklyn Academy.

Jae Nael is the main character in the comic, walking around with a Capri-Sun or a salad, falling into lunges, drinking too much. Kirk resists and then relents to Martell Ruffin’s advances, and in a break for the dancers, we hear her monologue offstage as she prepares for a date with him, torn between “playing with boys” and the threat of be single for life. After he arrives, they seem, confusingly, to reunite at the first party or similar.

This rally doesn’t seem like one to attract the cops, but an “Untitled Love” gets darker as D’Angelo’s voice mixes with the crackle of police or EMT radio. One by one, the dancers lie face down with their wrists crossed behind their backs (as in several previous Abraham dances). We hear the unidentified voice of Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers coach, marveling at how an unnamed ‘they’ speak in fear when ‘we’re the ones being killed’, and finding it incredible ‘why we continue to love this country, and this country doesn’t like us back.” Another love and its obstacles.

And then comes D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, which could be considered the title track of this show. 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 its weight in tender backbends but continues to retreat into the shadows as their connection remains unstable. Alone, he builds a shattered explosion with D’Angelo’s gospel cry, a piercing expression of the love within and all that blocks it.

Neal eases the tension with a joke, and we’re back at the party, with the cast reunited on the couch to watch the incredible Tamisha A. Guy and Claude Johnson dance to romance. As drama, there are aspects of “An Untitled Love” that I found too easy and familiar, both in the comfortable comedy and in the commentary. It does not amount to the magic of “Rock Lovers”, the 2020 Steve McQueen film that turns an entire world into a single dance party. But in his good time is a lot of love.

“Untitled Love”

Until Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; bam.org.

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