Kyle Abraham
Photo credit: Christopher Duggan

Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M Celebrates Community and Connection

The party starts informally: attendees wander unhurried onto the stage, greeting one another and chatting familiarly. A purple couch covered in protective plastic occupies a downstage corner, with a large fern peeking over its back. As they mill about the room, the party-goers’ chatting gradually shifts into movement — their verbal conversation transforming seamlessly into dance conversation. Thus “An Untitled Love,” choreographed by Kyle Abraham for his dance company, A.I.M, is set into motion.

A.I.M has toured widely with the hour-long piece since its premiere in 2021. Happily, the company’s tour included two performances in Philadelphia (September 23-24) thanks to FringeArts featuring the production at this year’s Fringe Festival.

“An Untitled Love” is inspired by the music of R&B great D’Angelo — and especially by Abraham’s memories of his parents and their friends getting together with this music playing on the stereo. D’Angelo’s musical groove (along with the warm lighting design by Dan Scully and casual costumes by Karen Young) keeps the mood of the party loose and sultry.

Dancers meander in and out of the room throughout the evening. A few songs into the piece, “One Mo’Gin” fires up on the stereo, and four women gather together for a gab session on the couch. They shift back and forth between words and movement, lifting and rolling their shoulders and flicking their hands softly. Two men look on, but are cooly dismissed: It’s clear the ladies don’t need their input.

Abraham has choreographed numerous dances for his own New York-based company, A.I.M, since its founding in 2006. In addition, he has created works for a wide range of dance companies — from modern dance mainstays such as Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, and Hubbard Street to ballet institutions such as the New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet.

Some of his dances have focused on the grievous realities of being Black in America:  “Untitled America” (for Ailey) confronts the effects of mass incarceration and “Meditation: A Silent Prayer” (for A.I.M) addresses the subject of police brutality. In “An Untitled Love,” Abraham has gone in a more uplifting direction, choosing to celebrate the friends and family — and their love of music and dance — from the community in Pittsburgh where he grew up.

The heart of the piece is an extended encounter between Catherine Kirk and Martell Ruffin. He sweet-talks her into going out with him, and then we hear her off-stage monologue as she gets ready: She wryly debates whether it’s better to “be playing with boys” or to risk remaining permanently single. Out on their date, Kirk expresses herself in a stately, formidable solo and Ruffin watches her, working up the nerve to approach. Abruptly, he executes a few dance moves in her direction and they make a quick exit together.

The couple later reappears in a transformative duet set to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” and their relationship deepens from words to movement to intimacy. Kirk and Ruffin are extraordinary, revealing both their vulnerabilities and support for each other. They communicate in a language that translates their physical and emotional connection into dance. Perhaps the moment is a tribute to Abraham’s parents — but is certainly a testament to the healing power of love.

“An Untitled Love” satisfies on many levels. The piece is at times fun and flirtatious and at others serious and profound. Abraham’s choreography picks up on the rhythms of conversation and combines them with the rhythms of dance. A.I.M’s wonderful dancers capture the expressive quality of the movement and demonstrate that dancing is a potent mode of personal interaction. The love here may be untitled, yet it’s clearly present.

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