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Fringe Festival offerings from Philly theater company Ninth Planet and touring contemporary dance company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham both explored the Black experience, highlighting themes of resilience, community, and connection in novel and thought-provoking ways. Ninth Planet, which creates experimental theater centering people of color, women, and queer and trans* people in Philadelphia, made its Fringe debut with high noon, a collaboratively created work that examined cowboy mythology through live music, archival video, movement, and poetry. A.I.M by Kyle Abraham’s An Untitled Love focused on celebrating Black love, culture, and community through music and dance-theater.
Sonically striking with solid performances and haunting video design by Jordan Deal, high noon, part of the Cannonball Festival, did not quite realize its ambitions. The audience entered to see three performers on a stage flanked by musical equipment and backed by slide projections of lonely desert scenes. Kris Lee, wearing a cowboy hat and a holster vest, drew from movement and gesture to embody the figure of the cowboy. Lee staggered slowly while holding on to the hat, as if fighting a stiff wind. Throughout high noon, Lee repeatedly ran their hands just above the hat’s brim in a gesture simultaneously evocative of hat tips, gun draws, a pixelated cowboy, and Michael Jackson.
Interactions between Lee’s character and Vitche-Boul Ra’s formed the crux of high noon, with the former describing isolation and the latter experiencing freedom. The two grappled in a play fight between Oliver Spencer and Sam Rise’s live lyrical interludes, which included the classic cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo,” a stirring spoken-word ode to the concept of “yonder,” and ambient sound incorporating synthesizers, samples, and loops. Yet the most powerful element of high noon was footage of a performance of “Driva’ Man” from We Insist!: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1961), the jazz album exploring Civil Rights themes. A song about enslavement and forced labor featuring a riveting turn by vocalist Abbey Lincoln, “Driva’ Man” addresses the absence of liberty but lacked clear connections to high noon’s themes.
An Untitled Love
An Untitled Love from New York’s A.I.M by Kyle Abraham (part of an ongoing national tour) also uses movement, sound, and images to explore Black experiences. Created by choreographer/artistic director Abraham in collaboration with the dancers, the work draws inspiration from the music of R&B artist D’Angelo and incorporates various movement styles. It unfolds like a multimedia mixtape, with vignettes of dance, theater, and human connection fading in and out. Dan Scully’s set and light design create the impression of different scenes in which the action unfolds, from the sofa and lamp suggesting a living room on one side of the stage to a shifting backdrop of projections that reference Black music and culture.
An Untitled Love establishes vignettes that ebb and flow like conversation. A discussion about what one of the characters seeks in a man segues into a quiet partnered dance while others talk quietly on the couch. That scene flows into an arresting sequence set to “Chicken Grease” (2000). Performers enter with such exaggerated and carefully coordinated slowness that viewers can savor the beautiful kinetic tableau that unfolds like a slow-motion recording. Another scene featuring four female dancers seated on the couch makes clever use of gesture and tempo changes as the performers roll their shoulders and cross their legs in unison, then move individually.
Several dances for duos and quartets highlighted Abraham’s keen eye for variety in formation, tempo, and level changes as well as the dancers’ strengths in styles ranging from modern to hip hop. Bits of conversation about someone’s promiscuous cousin and that family at church with all the kids land with affectionate humor. An audio clip of Doc Rivers’s remarks after the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin—“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back”—speaks to the racism and violence in America. An Untitled Love then segues into a romantic and sexy duet, hinting that loving one another offers a way forward. Clarifying this message would make this well-staged and expertly performed work even more satisfying.
An Untitled Love and high noon harness interdisciplinary approaches and strong performances to explore interesting and important subjects. Their parts may not coalesce into a unified whole, but they delivered eye-catching food for thought that brought cheering audiences to their feet.
What, When, Where
high noon. Created by Ninth Planet, directed by Nia Benjamin. $20. September 5-8, 2022, at Icebox Project Space, 1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia. fringearts.com.
Masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are required to enter Cannonball Festival shows.
An Untitled Love. Choreography by Kyle Abraham in partnership with A.I.M; $35. September 22-24, 2022, at the Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. fringearts.com.
Proof of Covid vaccination was required to enter, but masks were optional.
The Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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