Thursday evening marked the kickoff for American Dance Festival‘s 2021 series entitled “Together We Dance.” An enthusiastic audience of ADF fans convened on the grounds of this year’s festival site, the North Carolina Museum of Art. Friday night’s company, Pilobolus was in the house to support the opener –  A.I.M by Kyle Abraham.

The excited audience was primed with anticipation for what is sure to be highly acclaimed by the dance world – the premiere of an ADF commissioned work by Abraham called As Yet Untitled. Giving a nod to North Carolina, this work is enveloped in the preternatural voice of Tryon-born, Nina Simone. Abraham is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and one of the most distinct voices in Black dance today, having founded A.I.M in 2006. The bios of nine dancers that comprise A.I.M can be read here. The company worked together with the comfort of people who know each other on many levels. Mature, on top of their game, and confidently at ease, this is some of the finest young talent in the dance world today.

Several folks warmed up the crowd prior to the 60-minute concert of three works.

Reid Wilson, North Carolina Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources sent greetings from Governor Roy Cooper bringing hoots and hollers from the crowd. Noting that one of the things NCMA is so good at – bringing together “art, nature, and people” – he thanked spectators for wearing masks and getting vaccinated, and asking those who aren’t vaccinated to “do it!”

ADF executive director, Jodee Nimerichter let the audience know that ADF had never stopped during the pandemic, dancing everywhere from cemeteries to parades on her street. This ADF season is dedicated to ADF’s director of finance and administration, Cynthia Wyse, now in her 33rd summer with the organization.  

Moses T. Alexander Greene, Director of Film and Performing Arts for NCMA, articulated that modern dance had never been performed on the outdoor stage, thus “making history tonight.”

Opening with Keerati Jinakunwiphat‘s Big Rings, dancers casually walked on stage and began warming up and stretching to Drake and Future’s song. Dressed in sweats designed to infer a basketball team, eventually they began to “play.” Audio of court skids, dribbling, hustling, and cheering crowds provided ambiance while the dancers cued off one another with collaborative “team” work, fluid and full of fun. Jinakunwiphat brought awareness to athletics as an art form (certainly something we already knew here in basketball country). The music bed was a mix that included Alan Parson’s Project’s “Sirius,” (which is the Chicago Bulls theme song), Saint-Saën’s “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals, (as performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott), house music of Quad City DJs (“Space Jam“), “Good Ass Intro” by Chance the Rapper with additional composition and editing by A.I.M music arranger, Zach Berns.

The world premiere of As Yet Untitled began with the full company dressed in soft black, working as a collective to Simone’s rendition of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” The group moved in slow, fluid ensemble. Steam coming from their breath and bodies rose and flowed in tendrils into the surrounding darkness, creating a terribly beautiful atmosphere that was completely unexpected and would only happen outside on a night like this. Bridging the concept of billowing hair with the poignant yearning for a lost love, sometimes one dancer would breach the collective and stretch away, being held to the group by tense and loving arms that would pull them back in. Gorgeous.

Keeper of the Flame” was danced by Jae Neal. Neal’s movement was incredibly sensual and visceral, with much of their time spent with their body facing the back wall, creating an even more enticing, seductive mood. Neal completely embodied the character which was abundantly human and yet other-worldly. One could not look away.

Following was “Little Girl Blue” featuring Gianna Theodore. Simone sings this heartbreaking song over her own piano stylings of “Good King Wenceslas.” In the gloom of blue lighting, Theodore personified the music with almost all of the dance taking place on or just above the ground, as if her sadness was too heavy to bear.

Simone’s interpretation of Billy Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” was set as a pas de deux between Donavan Reed and Neal. Abraham’s choreography uses these amazingly long phrases of time in motion. It’s hard to believe that someone could stay that behind the beat. At the end, the lovers leave the stage, one broken, moving in jumpy detached motions that visually appeared as one looks in strobe lighting, while the other lover moved in slow motion.

As the soloist in “Wild is the Wind,” Jinakunwiphat displayed the same technique of bending time in space with most of the movement taking place in the arms. Sometimes wild as the wind, sometimes so slow you could barely detect her movement, she played Simone’s piano solo exquisitely with her arms and hands.

Images” was danced by Catherine Kirk to the live recording of Simone singing a cappella. Abraham’s interpretation of the sparse beauty, along with Kirk’s almost chant-like embodiment of the music created a haunting version of the heart-rending text.

She does not know her beauty.

She thinks her brown body has no glory.

If she could dance naked under palm trees

And see her image in the river,

She would know.

But there are no palm trees in the street

And dish water gives back no images.

Abraham’s song selection for As Yet Untitled is impeccable. Listening is strongly suggested and let’s hope that there’s a professional video of this work soon.

The final work for the night was an A.I.M repertoire staple, Drive. With music by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep, the entire company collaborated with precision to a techno club vibe. Variations provided interesting scenes of tension and tactile fluidity. This was a delight to watch. Interestingly, Abraham added a voice at the end of the piece that must have been a message, but it was intentionally unintelligible – the voice of Barack Obama. I could only make out the word ”grandmother.”

The thankful audience rose immediately to their feet as Abraham graced the stage to acknowledge the performers, ADF, and all the folks behind the scenes. Here’s hoping that A.I.M by Kyle Abraham come back soon.

ADF Summer Festival continues through Thursday, September 16th. Get out and enjoy this world-class event we are so lucky to have in our back yard. See our calendar for listings and details.