The problem with visionary choreographers is that sometimes their intentions for pushing the boundaries of modern dance don’t manifest into a work in which all the creative contributions gel. That is exactly how I felt at Sadler's Wells in response to Kyle Abraham’s Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth, which was as discombobulated as that rather ambiguous title.

Donovan Reed in Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth
© Peter Honnemann

It’s a fruitless task to search for meaning in this 62-minute long work although, by the way, compared to some overlong recent modern dance performances at Sadler’s Wells, Abraham has a better appreciation of his audience’s attention span. The only declared intention is musical in the mutual desire of Abraham and electronic composer, Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) to reimagine Mozart’s Requiem in D minor through “abstracted themes of afterlife, reincarnation, mythology and folklore”. Ostensibly, since Mozart died while the score was in progress and the last three movements remained unwritten this idea of imposing concepts of afterlife and reincarnation to his incomplete work seemed appealing: although, in Jlin’s actual iteration it is not so much reincarnated as brusquely eviscerated and searching for those stated themes was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. When Russian composer, Rodion Shchedrin was asked by his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, to reimagine the opera score for her production of the Carmen Suite, his reply was that he could not possibly improve on Bizet. There are lessons to be learned in those wise words, starting with “Don’t mess with Mozart!”  

Jlin’s musical style has derived from the footwork genre, which in turn has roots in ghetto house and hip hop. Her first two albums, Dark Energy (2015) and Black Origami (2017), were released to widespread critical acclaim and she has previous experience in composing for dance through her score for Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography (also in 2017). Her early music used samples and although later tracks are all original a unique use of operatic sampling infuses this score for Abraham; I haven’t come across anyone doing this since the late Malcolm McLaren’s Fans album, way back in 1984. Jlin’s music generally has a throbbing, repetitive, hypnotic quality, shades of which were present in this score, but generally it seemed abrasive and abstract to the point of alienating engagement, so much so that one of my best memories of Abraham’s choreography came in a sensual pas de trois for three men that was performed in silence immediately after a thunderous passage of music.

A.I.M by Kyle Abraham in Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth
© Peter Honnemann

The work’s saving graces lay in its visual splendour and Abraham’s wide-ranging and unpredictable palette of movement delivered by ten dancers who were sublime while articulating his fluid kaleidoscopic patterns. A myriad of dance styles formed a unique hybrid language, including ballet, sundry contemporary forms (certainly Graham and Cunningham), courtly dance mixed with some power breakdance and capoeira and even punctuated by some old-fashioned ballroom. By rights it should be a messy mélange but instead Abraham weaves it all into an enigmatic tapestry.  The dancers pair up in various permutations and there is a glorious male solo by Martell Ruffin in the closing section. Not much happens in flight and the grounded theme is routinely present: dancers crouch, collapse or lie motionless, as with a false ending when the lights dimmed to black, following which there was a peculiar montage of film clips – a wedding, a drowning man and a cradled child (was this birth, marriage and death disordered)? 

The visual spectacle in the lighting and scenic design by Dan Scully was powerful with a “porthole” (especially effective when viewing the drowning man) giving views onto another dimension that was bookended by the naturalistic display of heavier liquids floating down through lighter fluid (we called it a lava lamp back in the day). The lighting, including four fluorescent poles strategically placed on stage while another encircled and enhanced the porthole effect, was inventive and interesting as were the eclectic gender-fluid costumes by English fashion designer, Giles Deacon, which – echoing the varied choreography – included exaggerated tutus, incongruous bright white undershorts and diaphanous dresses, heavily accessorised with peplums and what seemed like “bum bags” casually and incongruously slung around dancers’ torsos.   

There is a lot to commend in this work and certainly a lot to take in, which leads me to suspect that it would grow in estimation with repeated viewings. But most audience members don’t get that opportunity and when seen for one night only it’s a dance work that presents glittering moments without any coherent form.