"We're still dying" says African American choreographer Kyle Abraham. Limp bodies lie heaped upon one another: face down, arms twisted back, wrists crossed. Abraham returns repeatedly to this image in his work Pavement. The sprawled limbs made infamous by TV news cycles and cop shows are synonymous with gang culture, law enforcement and police brutality. Abraham was 14 years old in 1991 when Boyz n the Hood was released. Pavement (created in 2011) pays homage to the film, bringing to life the realities of poverty and violence for urban African American communities in Abraham's hometown of Pittsburgh.

Maleek Washington, Jeremy Neal and dancers of Abraham. In. Motion. in Pavement
© Carrie Schneider

The stage is an empty basketball court, trainers hang from a single telegraph line and a prison-like wire fence cuts across the back of the space. Dancers in street clothes hustle, cagey and distrustful of each other, sometimes volatile. Running at just over an hour there's no single dramatic thread to follow, rather Abraham offers a patchwork of characters and encounters.

Audio clips from the film punctuate the work. The anguished cries of a grieving mother ricochet around the stripped back stage and gun fire rattles through the dancers' bodies. Kids chatter about street shootings and homework in the same breath, desensitised to the violence that holds their neighbourhoods hostage. Sam Crawford skilfully weaves an eclectic soundtrack around the performers. The velvety strains of Britten, Bach and Vivaldi mingle with soulful blues and sugary love songs.

© Steven Schreiber

Abraham's choreography is an intricate conversation between dance styles. The cast are multi-lingual, speaking with more than one movement language simultaneously. Loose limbed arms and rolling hips converge with crisp arabesques and spinning top pirouettes. In a rapid series of jumps, bullets make virtual holes in the dancers' bodies. Combative sequences draw on capoeira and contact improvisation techniques to produce some impressive lifts.    

Herein lies a contradiction. The beauty of dancing takes the edge off the brutality that I think Abraham wants us to encounter. The emotional story being conveyed feels muted by the eloquence of polished technique and picture perfect bodies. Equally, my own lived experience is far removed from Abraham's. Perhaps it is the limitations of my own understanding that renders the feeling of being at arm's length

This work is personal for Abraham and his dancers. In the post-show talk Winston Dynamite Brown recalls spending hours flattened on the floor of his home, protecting himself from the gun battles ravaging his neighbourhood. For Brown Pavement is a means of remembering the lives cut short by street violence in his community. Tamisha Guy - the only female in the cast - encounters her own emotions afresh in each performance and speaks of how the gestures and the movements evoke strong feelings in her.

Abraham doesn't offer a silver lining, but his persuasiveness and compassion as a choreographer ignites empathy. Whilst the creation of Pavement precedes the ground swell of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is testimony to the need for change.