Dancing Double Consciousness
Turn on the news and the phrase “a black man, wearing a hoodie and baggy pants…” will most likely be followed by: “is a suspect, criminal, gang member, violent, dangerous.” At Food for Thought at Danspace Project in 2008 a black man stood center stage wearing a hoodie and baggy pants.Here he wasn’t a threat but an artist. The culprit artist was Kyle J. Abraham. Mr. Abraham is a critically acclaimed modern choreographer whose newest work is being performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre across the country. In 2008 at Food for Thought it was just him, center stage, looking like the stereotypical description of a black menace to society. And what do menaces to society in hoodies listen to? “A Milli” by Lil Wayne, which began to play. I am being facetious of course, and perhaps Abraham is too. Lil Wayne sings:
I’m a Young Money Millionaire, tougher than Nigerian hair,
My criteria compared to your career just isn’t fair,
I’m a venereal disease like a menstrual bleed
Cockiness is cockiness is a common trait among black Americans who have reached a certain level of success (as defined by popularity, demand, and dollars). Perhaps the cockiness, or confidence rather, is justifiable for artist such as Lil Wayne and Kyle Abraham because they are able to work with their double consciousness and create art that resonates with large audiences. Double consciousness is the struggle a person feels when having to balance a multifaceted identity. If it were up to mainstream media Abraham and Lil Wayne would be dead or in jail, yet both artist took their history, identity and fate in their own hands, created art, and put it on the world stage. They both are making their way in western society but it is “tougher than Nigerian hair”, which Abraham physically demonstrates as he does the “weave tap” gesture twice in his untitled solo work.
How do Abraham and Lil Wayne feel by being wealthy black artists while police are killing other black men? Society didn’t plan on homosexuality and modern dance for Kyle Abraham. How does Kyle J. Abraham define himself to the world, since the world did not originally make space for him nor others who share his experience? He dances. The struggle and beauty of being a person of color in the LGBTQ community is defined perhaps in the hip swings and chest thrust of his solo at Food for Thought. The head bobbing and crumping expressed by Abraham introduces the audience to a different identity, and the petite allegro with pirouettes introduces us to yet another facet of his story.
A black man in a hoodie and baggy pants stands with a slight hunch in his shoulders. His back is to the audience, full identity unknown. His hands are clasp together in front of him as the Lil Wayne starts to rap the dancer lets the weight of his hands guide him in a bop from left to right that makes his knees bounce. As the weight in his clasped hands swings from left to right his head starts to bob up and down, left to right depending on the guidance of the arms, shoulders jumping in reaction.
If you can’t beat ’em then you pop ’em,
You can’t man em then you mop ’em,
You can’t stand em then you drop em…
As the rhythm and beat of the rap song manifest between his hands, the dancer begins to cradle the beat, as a black man would cradle the cockiness of Lil Wayne’s music. The rock motion eases along to the beat the punches aggressively like the lyrics. The aggressive cradling intensifies, giving spinal whiplash, and then transfers to his hips. The transition is seamless, a natural progression as the arms hit the pelvis awakening the hips to take on their responsibility of showing us another personality that was not present before. The hips circle at a slower beat to the floor. I’ll admit that I was staring at derrière; I think that’s what he wanted. It was a black boy magic trick as he was just doing a downward high speed cabbage patch to now a Caribbean wind down to the floor. It was also magic how he showed us multiple identities that he created specifically to him.
As the piece progresses, the layers of Kyle Abraham began to reveal themselves through specific gestures of hip swishing, bucking. If you are not familiar with Abraham’s style you would not see the double coupe turns and petite allegro coming. Classical dance technique was present in this solo. A black man with studio dance, street and club training created this solo to showcase it all. The technical movements of ballet and modern aesthetic were sprinkled as brief transitions in this piece, clearly not to be the focus, but just to make an appearance.
Attempting to define who you are in a world that wants to define you with no retaliation is a difficult feat. This solo choreographed by Abraham looked like it was hard on him through is facial expression, but then also easy based on other expressions. Mapping out double consciences for yourself can take a lifetime because first you have to understand how history sees you, how the world sees you and then how you see yourself. This piece defines Kyle Abraham’s double consciences without him having to say a world. Identity is in how we dance.
A Short Danceography: Katherine Dunham