A Requiem Rocks the Fundament
Kyle Abraham and Jlin shake up Mozart’s mass
Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth
August 11–13, 2022
The program note for Kyle Abraham/A.I.M’s Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth uses the word “reincarnation,” a term that could refer to the rebirth of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. A.I.M’s Requiem is a palimpsest of that long-lived festival. However, despite its title and the use of a few movements from Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor,” the connection is slender. With mostly new electronic music by Jlin, mixed live and sampling Mozart, a commissioned work by the inventive Abraham could only be of the moment and looking forward. It’s not the first time Abraham has shaken up the usually staid plaza; his Runaway for New York City Ballet has rocked elated audiences with its daring hybrid movement and hip-hop music.
A move toward diversity and inclusion is afoot at Lincoln Center, beginning with the new programming umbrella of Summer for the City, comprising over three hundred events on the campus, and centered around a giant disco ball replacing the fountain for the summer. With the onset of the pandemic, plus the hiring of Shanta Thake as chief artistic officer, legacy programs like Mostly Mozart and Lincoln Center Out of Doors became pieces of the larger puzzle of Summer for the City. The night before I saw Requiem, I caught BAAND Together in Damrosch Park. The awkward acronym takes the first letters of five major New York dance companies who each performed selections from their repertory; members from each joined in to perform a new work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, One For All. The idea that these companies—usually presented separately, and at times in direct competition for audience members—would work together at Lincoln Center, is itself anathema. And while the large cast of One For All, pulled from all five companies, buzzed with energy in catwalk struts, many of the individual company performances were overly long, and some recently seen in New York.
A requiem is often a mass to remember the dead. The program note mentions that Jlin “has transformed Mozart’s score into an electronic opus that memorializes ritual and rebirth.” On the backdrop, images of two mirroring lattice structures resembling church side aisle buttresses surround a rondel video screen the approximate size of a stained glass rosette window. The video stream shifts perpetually, from lava-lamp-like blobs to fingerprints. Dan Scully designed the lighting, which ranges from golden to subaquatic marine blue. The variegated costumes of printed white satin, many with flouncing skirts and bits of crimson flair, plus red painted eye masks, were designed by Giles Deacon.
The dancers seem united at first, moving together or in coordination to Mozart. As the beats take over in Jlin’s score, sometimes oppressively so, individual personalities and tics emerge. Abraham’s unique style of movement is an amalgam of modern, ballet, gesture, stream of consciousness, and street dance. At times, it can seem so loose as to be improvisatory. Each dancer performs the same movement differently, so an ensemble section contains more personal interpretation than in other codified genres, such as ballet. As the work progresses, idiosyncratic behavioral traits distinguish individuals, sometimes leading to downfall or ostracization. Abraham’s choreography is generally non-narrative, so it is implied rather than spelled out. But it appeared that if a dancer became possessed with anger, or collapsed, they would be tended to by the group, rejoining the community. In a trio, if one dancer fell, the other two would be there for support.
Abraham humorously interjects colloquial gestures. A group huddles, sharing laughs, fist bumping, while an outsider roams the periphery, expressing frustration in high kicks and shoulder rolls before collapsing. A dancer shockingly punches at his heart, spasms, and drops. Another flirts as a peanut gallery gossips to the side. These sketches are perceived quickly, and no doubt vary from viewer to viewer. This subtlety can sometimes frustrate, but audiences are constantly challenged to make sense of the work as it unfolds.
All of A.I.M’s dancers bring their own gifts. Martell Ruffin performs an exceptional, virtuosic solo, caroming from step to gesture to expression with a mercurial swiftness. My notes read, in part: “shudder, ‘wait a sec,’ swing arms, four pirouettes, ground work, tics, knee knocks, hip swivels, drop to knees, curl up legs. Scared.” It felt like a time lapse film of every emotion. Such is Abraham’s skill with seamlessly stitching together any and all kinds of movement into a unique genre. In the final section, the group coheres, forming a wedge-shaped tableau while a video of a chrysalis appears. Jlin’s remix softens a bit. The dancers emerge from the cluster like a flower in bloom—once again a community of disparate individuals in support of one another.