Channeling his inner marionette, Kyle Abraham created Live! The Realest MC in 2011, combining material from one of his solos with the tale of Pinocchio. Without being too heavy handed, Abraham drops in just enough narrative and evocative gesture between pure dance passages for viewers to intuit a larger sense of the implied themes. In The Realest MC, the hot button topics of gender expression, assimilation, bullying, and appropriation simmer with the threat of boiling over every now and then. The takeaway is powerful—provocative ideas that linger in the mind long after the show ends.
April 4 – April 6, 2019
New York City
Jeremy “Jae” Neal assumes Abraham’s original role of protagonist, sporting a silver sequin top in contrast to the other dancers’ silver trimmed black tracksuits. (Throughout the piece, the dancers wear black and metallic variations of separates designed by Abraham and Kristi Wood.) As Pinocchio dreamt of being “a real boy,” Neal wants validation, and to become one of the group. But while the other dancers move smoothly through Abraham’s unique vocabulary of poses that punctuate passages of muscular jumps and lunges, Neal struggles to link coherent movement phrases. He tries to imitate the others as they strut with swagger, assuming an untouchably cool façade. A woman approaches Neal, cooing “hey baby”—a gender flip of the standard catcall scenario that every woman endures.
One of Abraham’s most notable recent works was The Runaway, commissioned by New York City Ballet. In it, he proved his ability to connect with, and inspire, fairly conservative classical audiences by mixing ballet steps with his own style, while also illuminating the scope of the company’s impressive dancers (in particular, Taylor Stanley in a dazzling solo). The Realest MC deploys Abraham’s sui generis vocabulary—hip-hop influenced moves blended with expressive space-eating steps and semaphoring gestures. The women pin their fingers to the tops of the heads, faces framed by heart-shaped arms. They slide on their shins across the stage, or stag leap, an arm flung overhead, a recurring step.
Photos and videos are projected on the ingenious rotating vertical canvas slats that form a backdrop when closed (uncredited, but presumably by Abraham). A vintage video features a woman energetically demonstrating hip-hop dance-moves saying, “You gotta stay relaxed,” and pointing as she says, “Peace, I’m out.” Because she is White and is appropriating an essentially Black form of expression, it reads first as funny, and then squirm inducing. And later, standing in front of a mic, Neal shows us how to do a hip roll, swiveling his butt toward the audience, followed by two quick steps, and then demonstrates the “thinking man’s pose,” an imitation of Rodin’s famous sculpture and a familiar hip-hop motif. Popularity breeds the desire to replicate things, and leads to codification and appropriation. Abraham reminds us that it takes place on many levels all the time, through time and across oceans (or optic fibers, anyway). Hip-hop dance is now standard fare on a dance studio class menu, alongside tap and ballet.
The stage space becomes fungible for Abraham. There is no strict “on” or “off” for the dancers, who complete a movement phrase and immediately smooth their hair or tug their tops into place. The aforementioned teaching moments become performance sections equal to dance phrases. Dan Scully’s lighting scheme helps to define a scene’s focus; he projects pools of yellow light that become spotlit islands for solos by the seven dancers. The vertical backdrop slats open to reveal a brilliant violet light at one point; in another, orange side lights emulate a burning firelight. The mixed soundtrack (by Abraham and others) comprises a variety of clips that support the movement, including found industrial or street sounds such as truck engines and beeps, pulsing rhythms, pensive piano, and wailing electronics.
In the program note, Abraham writes: “When I created this work almost ten years ago, I thought about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed.” He refers to “a quest for realness,” saying The Realest MC investigates gender roles within his community. One interpretation of realness is to publicly express one’s gender identity—or any identity—that may not be readily accepted. Perhaps Abraham no longer hopes to go unnoticed, but his work no doubt speaks to many who still feel a conflict between inner and outer identity, and who might be encouraged by the trend away from conformity and toward authentic individual expression.