No respite from pain for Kyle Abraham

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BECKET — "Dearest Home," the latest work Kyle Abraham has made with his company, Abraham.In.Motion, was originally meant to be a project that would provide the talented choreographer with a bit of a respite from the heavy subject matter of his other recent dances. (His excellent "Pavement" from 2012 explored the devastating affects that police brutality has had on the lives of people of color.) So Abraham thought he'd turn to love. Nice, right? But when a series of very difficult events occurred — his mother passed away; a serious relationship broke up — the darkness in Abraham's personal life shadowed the doorstep of his artistic "Home" too.

While certainly a lot of art is created out of joy, a good deal of it is borne from pain: with the latter, the artist has the interesting dilemma of how to channel say, grief, in a way that maintains the line between art and life. (Yes, that endlessly fascinating discussion!) Can such a work of art resonate on some universal level without crossing into some kind of reality TV realm? In Abraham's 75-minute dance being presented this week at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, he indeed aptly mines familiar emotions many of us have experienced vis-a-vis intimacy: joy, yes; but also curiosity; trepidation; frustration; tenderness; fear; anger.

And, sadness, which, alas, is where "Dearest Home" slips off-key. In a handful of notable scenes, characters cry — they gasp, they sputter, they sob. Although those moments are few, they loom uncomfortably over the show.

Through a series of intimate vignettes the cast's six dancers also depict (momentarily) happy lovers, women and men experiencing the good, but also the bad, and the ugly, of real life. Seated on all four sides of the stage floor, the audience is pulled tightly in. In addition to the way this proximity draws us more immediately into the drama, it's a pleasure to experience these wonderful dancers and Abraham's sinuous, sweeping movement so closely.

"Home" unfolds in a kind of ageless, placeless dreamspace. The solos, duets and occasional trios happen largely non-linearly: we may be watching a couple curiously approaching each other for the first time, or warily re-connecting after an argument. Though there is satisfyingly thematic vocabulary that deftly binds the whole together, the various characters perform the phrases with strikingly different physicalities. In their respective, absorbing duets, Tamisha Guy and Jeremy "Jae" Neal are often smooth, confident in their movements while Catherine Ellis Kirk and Marcella Lewis are circumspect, yet sensuous. Conversely, Matthew Baker and Connie Shiau perform large sections markedly alone, their dancing often twitchy and tense, sometimes dangerously off-kilter. Meanwhile, snippets of petit allegro pepper the scenes here and there, signifying happier times, the dancers playful and relaxed. (Cabrioles in particular seem to tickle them greatly.)

In his beautifully sensitive lighting, designer Dan Scully evokes not just moods but also seasons and times of day. At the beginning of her extraordinary solo, in which her otherwise pliant body looks as if it may just shatter into a million pieces, Shiau is partially lit by the harshness of a low spotlight held by another dancer crouching in a corner; eventually banks of lights, located on the floor behind the four seating sections, bathe the theater in a warmly diffused glow before shifting and receding again. As Shiau continues to struggle through her searing crisis one wonders if she's made it through to the morning or if she's heading into the precariousness of another lonely night.

For all of the emotional weight, I was struck by how quiet the performance was, and not just because of the lack of amplified music — viewers are given the choice of either watching in silence, as I did, or listening to Jerome Begin's score via wireless earbuds. Aside from the swish of their bare feet on the floor and their, at times, purposely theatricized breathing or crying, the dancers, who've apparently never heard the music, moved and jumped with a padded softness. The audience, as if hewing to a social contract, managed to keep the usual sounds of shifting and fidgeting to a minimum.

In terms of the crying, what was meant to be raw and real — and, in fact, to the dancers' great credit, probably was — often felt forced. For some viewers, however, the pitch may have been just perfect. In any event, I'm a big fan of Abraham and his work, and while it might not have worked for me, I gotta respect his commitment.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.


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