The summer is officially over, and New York Live Arts launched its new season with an ambitious program by Abraham.In.Motion, Kyle Abraham's company. The double bill, presented in separate programs on consecutive evenings, and inspired by the iconic protest album We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, represents the culmination of a generous residency at the Live Arts, where Abraham spent the past two years as Resident Commissioned Artist.

Abraham.In.Motion in <i>The Watershed</i> © Ian Douglas
Abraham.In.Motion in The Watershed
© Ian Douglas

This evening’s program, featuring a theatrically structured evening-length work, titled The Watershed, is divided in two distinct acts.For readers not familiar with this prolific choreographer’s work, it is worth noting that Abraham is drawn to politically charged issues – I refer to politics here in the broadest definition of the word – and this production is no exception. Soon after the curtain rises on renowned visual artist Glenn Ligon’s set, featuring a floor-to-ceiling wood-paneled wall upstage and an off-centered tree structure built out of white plastic tubing, the stage is populated by mixed-race and mixed-gender couples, evoking colonial imagery from the southern United States past. Abraham’s dance company features African-American, Asian-American as well as white dancers of both sexes, and the choreographer uses his cast’s diverse background to highlight issues of race, masculinity and gender, building an atmosphere that, throughout The Watershed’s first act, sustains a dynamic tension. While the themes Abraham proposes to delve in are unquestionably relevant, I found The Watershed’s first, significantly longer act to be egregiously uneven on many levels. Abraham’s approach is quite eclectic – choreographically, for instance, it blends balletic movement with modern dance and street swagger – but it also often falters into grey areas that read as lacking in specificity, not only in movement, but also in intention and content. Dramaturgically, this section teeters between storytelling and abstraction, creating a feel of disconnectedness that does not serve the work’s progression.

Abraham.In.Motion in <i>The Watershed</i> © Ian Douglas
Abraham.In.Motion in The Watershed
© Ian Douglas
There certainly is a wealth of ideas that Abraham brings to the table, however they are briefly introduced and quickly abandoned, never quite being given a chance to be explored in greater depth. To use a culinary analogy, I felt as if I had been invited to a feast with a multitude of dishes displayed on a large table, but was then only allowed tiny nibbles, without fully savoring any of them, and, ultimately, leaving hungry.

The production’s cast is also ranging in its abilities, which is a tricky proposition, as the dancers highlight each other’s strengths but also each other weaknesses, resulting in performances that feel uneven. Abraham features himself in several scenes as well, and this too can be highly problematic, though for a very different reason: the dancer/choreographer has an intensely charismatic presence and his fluid, microgestural, quicksilver movement is so mesmerizing that, quite frankly, no one else on that stage can quite match it afterwards.

 Thankfully, The Watershed’s (rather brief) second act is much more consistent and succinct – both in intent and duration. While the first part of the show looks at the past, the second faces the future. Clad in elegant costumes with a distinctly avantgarde cut, the cast now appears much more homogenized and in sync with each other. The interpersonal tensions may have disappeared, yet ghostly videos documenting history of discrimination projected on the rear wall of the set act as a reminder of a contentious history that may not have been resolved, or transcended. Whether the nation’s (or the world’s?) consciousness has evolved to a place where issues of race no longer matter remains a question rather than a statement, lingering in the air like smoke from an unfinished cigarette.

Abraham.In.Motion in <i>The Watershed</i> © Ian Douglas
Abraham.In.Motion in The Watershed
© Ian Douglas