Arts & Life, Fine & Performing Arts

“An Untitled Love” brings representation of Black love and unity to the stage

Placed on the right of the stage was a couch, black and red, as the first dancer walked onstage she fixed the plastic covering it and took her spot. As another dancer walked in, a drumroll began to play and the audience went silent knowing it was time to enjoy the performance they had all been waiting for.

An Untitled Love is an evening-length work choreographed by Kyle Abraham in collaboration with the dance company A.I.M which was presented at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at California State University, Long Beach on Saturday, Feb. 5.

Kyle Abraham is an award-winning choreographer who has presented throughout the United States and abroad at locations like the Lincoln Center, Harlem Stage, and The Andy Warhol Museum. He is commissioned by a variety of dance companies including the Royal Ballet.

A.I.M is a Black-led contemporary dance company founded by Abraham in 2006. The mission of the company is to “create a body of dance-based work that is galvanized by Black culture and history.” An Untitled Love is one of their many works that the company has worked on throughout the pandemic and is now able to be put on stage.

The performance is set to music by Grammy-award winning musician D’Angelo. Songs from his debut album “Brown Sugar” are used to convey a story that encapsulates Black love, community, culture, and history.

“It’s a work I’m hoping honors my parents that are no longer with us and those aunts and uncles that we all have that are not blood relatives,” said Abraham in the Q&A after the show.

The work was thought out with each move introducing the characters and their relationships with one another through solos, duets, quartets, and group performances. Each piece presented the themes that Abraham wanted to convey to the audience of Black love and unity.

Whether joyful or emotional moments, the A.I.M company members delivered a performance the audience resonated with. For example, when the dancers performed an entire dance in slow motion, the audience roared in laughter at the funny bits and gave a round of applause once it ended.

“Everything was just so effortless and just it made you feel really good, I got the chills when they did the slow-motion portion,” said Jacob Averill, 30, who drove from Los Angeles to see the show.

A unique aspect of Abraham’s work is that dialogue is introduced between characters to further connect the audience.

“It came in after pretty much all the choreography was learned and there were a lot of moments that we just knew needed some of that fun play and banter,” Abraham said.

Some of the dialogue was used in comedic timing or as transitions as well, most efficiently as a quick-change before the second act. Conversations about going to church, status on a new relationship, and people naming their babies after months were just a few topics that the audience could relate to in their own lived experiences.

The lighting in the show also helped narrate. It drew the eye to where the important moments were happening. Especially in the scenes of loss and struggles that were portrayed to acknowledge the struggles that the Black community and subgroups still face today. One of these moments was the duet between Martell Ruffin and Catherine Kirk’s characters to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).”

The duet had great significance in the show. It showcased the deep and serious intimacy within the relationship of Ruffin and Kirk’s characters that the audience saw have a more playful connection before.

“For me, support and vulnerability, there’s a lot of that on both ends. Both to support someone and to be vulnerable, both of those things are one and the same so I really wanted to show that as best I could,” Abraham said about the duet.

Kirk joined A.I.M in 2013. She said that one of the things she enjoys about An Untitled Love is sharing the work with different audiences and communities.

Dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk performs in "An Untitled Love."
Dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk performs in "An Untitled Love." Photo credit: Carrie Schneider

“When it comes time to performing and feeling the energy and response from different audiences, hearing what they think is funny or what they might be in awe of, or reacting to and being able to have post-performance discussions and talkbacks to see what questions people have, what resonated with them,” she said.

Kirk also shared that every show she hones in with the people she dances with to get herself as fully into the character development as much as she can. “We’re really tapping into each other and creating this world on stage and it definitely feels like a really safe, enlightening and fun communal space that we’re creating and then sharing out to the world,” Kirk said.

At the end of the show, the audience gave a standing ovation for what they had just witnessed and experienced.

Attendees who were interested stayed for the Q&A session which was moderated by CSULB Dance Department Chair Betsy Cooper. They were able to ask Abraham and the company members questions to get more insight into the work.

Abraham was able to answer questions on costumes, lighting, creative decisions, certain duets and solos. There were many questions about the solo to “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and Abraham said that “there’s a moment where Martell [Ruffin] has a groove moment and for me, it’s really the essence of what got me to dance, those moments when you really can just be in a space all by yourself and just kind of grooving and also emoting.”

He was also asked about the significance behind more serious sections of the work such as the song “Prayer.”

“As much as I love to have a work about celebration and joy and Black love and Black joy, I also need to acknowledge the fact that we’re still being murdered unjustly so I really felt, especially thinking about the LGBTQ community. I really wanted to make that section, in particular, to honor so many people in our, my community in that way and allow that moment of reality into the work,” Abraham said.

The representation of different communities was something that Abraham and the company members saw as important in their work. “I think that having people who look like me and as us, Black folk and people of color being able to connect to what we’re representing is really important,” said Kirk.

And surely many of the audience members that night left feeling seen and represented onstage.

“It was a piece that just reminded you of Black love and Black existence and how wonderful it is to be Black and to just exist in the skin that we do,” said Carchena Culmer, 30, who had come to the show with a group of friends.

As a dancer, what Kirk wishes audiences to get out of An Untitled Love is being able to connect to it in some way. “I really just hope that people have a great time and leave with a smile on their face and I think it’s very special to have those moments in a theater especially with dance,” she said.

A.I.M by Kyle Abraham will be taking An Untitled Love to UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures on Feb. 13. Learn more about tickets here.

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