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Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion’s “The Watershed” at New York Live Arts (all photos by Ian Douglas for New York Live Arts)

Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, can’t believe it. But that’s what they say.
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day.

These lyrics come from “Freedom Day,” a track from Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and a major influence on choreographer Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, who premiered his new work “The Watershed” at New York Live Arts last week, part of the culmination of his tenure as that theater’s Resident Commissioned Artist. In a director’s note, Abraham references Max Roach’s response when asked about “Freedom Day”: “Freedom itself was so hard to grasp … we don’t really understand what it is to be free.”

“The Watershed” remains skeptical about the nature of freedom in what Abraham terms a “poly-phobic society.” As a black gay American man, Abraham investigates questions of identity on many levels; as a choreographer, he’s unafraid to face these issues of race, gender, and societal oppression head-on.

Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion’s “The Watershed” at New York Live Arts (click to enlarge)

Glenn Ligon, the renowned visual artist who designed the sets for “The Watershed,” said in a 2011 interview, “We don’t agree on what images mean; that’s their power.” In “The Watershed,” Ligon’s wood-paneled set acts as a backdrop for images, mostly projections, that are far from ambiguous. From Shirley Temple dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to white policemen beating a black woman on the side of a busy highway, to projected text quoting blatantly ignorant opinions of blacks, the images presented to the audience are compelling and at times appalling, but not open to interpretation. Rather, the power of the piece lies in its onstage imagery, which, though sometimes similarly transparent, offers the audience a wider window through which to view the work.

“The Watershed” moves through history in two acts. At first, a warmly lit stage with a Spanish-moss-draped tree and dancers wearing long, old-fashioned-looking skirts and vests suggest the American South of the 19th century. Eight performers beautifully execute luscious, sweeping phrases, shifting from duets to trios to group movement. (Abraham himself is the ninth dancer, entering for brief one-on-one interactions and show-stealing solo moments.) The two white men in the piece at times seem to play aggressors both choreographically and theatrically — one violently hacks a watermelon apart with a cleaver — advancing a more pointed narrative. At others, they seamlessly transition back into the ensemble, where they couple up with both men and women, sometimes restraining, sometimes supporting, the choreography asking new questions about sexuality and identity. In a striking moment, a lone woman slowly bounds in a circle around the stage, repeatedly being held back by a man; my first thought was of a runaway slave, but Abraham gives the audience time to ponder the scenario more expansively: What am I running away from? Where am I running to?

Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion’s “The Watershed” at New York Live Arts

The second act of “The Watershed” begins with a heavy chain dropping from the ceiling onto the stage, and we are instantly beyond the present day, in the future. The physical shackles have fallen away, but the presence of the chain throughout the rest of the piece — as well as strips of white light resembling the bars of a cage — speaks of an ongoing suffering. The lighting is stark, the tree is bare, the PVC pipes that make up its trunk and branches gleam. The dancers, in homogenous, monochrome costumes, perform rapid arm and upper body movements with ferocious energy. The choreography at times references African dance. A specific shoulder roll and head nod that was planted like a seed by Abraham, in drag, at the beginning of the piece, has now grown and spread to become part of the frenzied tapestry of motion. Abraham is portraying a different world, but one in which the struggle for equality, justice, and respect is ongoing. He is asking us to consider that “Freedom Day” has not arrived yet.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion’s “The Watershed” took place at New York Live Arts (219 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 23, 24, 26 and October 1, 3, at 7:30pm.

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Emma Wiseman

Emma Wiseman is a performer and theater maker originally from Weston, CT and now living in Brooklyn, NY.