Requiem: Fire in the Air of Earth
August 11 to 13, 2022
Kyle Abraham/AIM’s program note Requiem: Fire in the Air of Earth uses the word “reincarnation,” a term that could refer to the revival of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. AIM Requiem is a palimpsest of this long-lasting festival. However, despite its title and the use of a few movements from Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor”, the connection is tenuous. With mostly new electronic music from Jlin, mixed live and sampled by Mozart, a work commissioned by the inventive Abraham could only be current and forward-looking. This isn’t the first time Abraham has shaken up the usually stilted place; his Run away for New York City Ballet rocked a delighted audience with its daring hybrid movement and hip-hop music.
A movement toward diversity and inclusion is underway at Lincoln Center, beginning with the new Summer for the City programming umbrella, featuring more than three hundred campus events, and centered around a giant disco ball replacing the fountain for the summer. With the onset of the pandemic, along with the hiring of Shanta Thake as artistic director, legacy programs like Mostly Mozart and Lincoln Center Out of Doors have become pieces of the larger Summer for the City puzzle. The night before I saw Requiem, I caught BAAND Ensemble at Damrosch Park. The goofy acronym takes the first letters of five major New York dance companies who have each performed selections from their repertoire; members from each joined to perform a new work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, One for all. The idea that these companies – usually presented separately and sometimes in direct competition for members of the public – would work together at Lincoln Center is in itself anathema. And while the great cast of One for all, drawn from the five companies, buzzing with energy in the catwalk struts, many of the individual company performances were too long, and some have recently been seen in New York.
A requiem is often a mass to remember the dead. The program note mentions that Jlin “transformed Mozart’s score into an electronic opus that commemorates ritual and rebirth”. In the backdrop, images of two mirrored lattice structures resembling church aisle buttresses surround a circular video screen approximately the size of a stained glass rose window. The video stream changes perpetually, from lava lamp-like drops to fingerprints. Dan Scully designed the lighting, which ranges from gold to underwater sea blue. The variegated suits of printed white satin, many with ruffled skirts and bits of crimson flair, as well as red-painted eye masks, were designed by Giles Deacon.
At first the dancers seem united, moving together or in coordination with Mozart. As the rhythms take over Jlin’s score, sometimes in an oppressive way, individual personalities and mannerisms emerge. Abraham’s unique movement style is an amalgamation of modernity, ballet, gesture, stream of consciousness and street dance. Sometimes it can feel so loose that it’s improvised. 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 set individuals apart, sometimes leading to downfall or ostracism. Abraham’s choreography is generally non-narrative, so it is implied rather than stated. But it appeared that if a dancer became possessed by anger or broke down, they would be picked up by the group, joining the community. In a trio, if a dancer fell, the other two would be there to support him.
Abraham humorously injects familiar gestures. A group gathers, shares laughter, punches, while a stranger roams the periphery, venting his frustration with high kicks and shoulder rolls before collapsing. A dancer punches him in the heart, spasms and falls. Another flirts as a peanut gallery chatters off to the side. These sketches are perceived quickly, and undoubtedly vary from one spectator to another. This subtlety can be frustrating at times, but audiences are constantly challenged to make sense of the work as it unfolds.
All AIM dancers bring their own gifts. Martell Ruffin performs an exceptional virtuoso solo, moving from step to gesture to expression with mercurial rapidity. My notes said, in part: “shudder, ‘wait a second’, swing arms, four pirouettes, floor work, tics, knee strikes, hip pivots, drop to knees, bend legs. Scared.” It was like a sped-up movie of every emotion. Such is Abraham’s skill at seamlessly stitching together all manner of movement into a single genre. In the final section, the group is cohesive, forming a picture-like corner as a video of a chrysalis appears. Jlin’s remix softens a bit. The dancers emerge from the group like a blooming flower – once again a community of disparate individuals supporting each other .