Dance review: Vanderbilt Great Performances opens its season with ‘The Realest MC’

mc1Nashville’s arts community is spending time this weekend considering the lives of people who have traditionally been marginalized.

On Friday morning, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened Carrie Mae Weems: Thirty Years of Photography and Video, a major new exhibit that pays special attention to the lives of African-American women. On Friday night at Ingram Hall, Vanderbilt Great Performances series staged choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham’s Live! The Realest MC, an autobiographical work that explores the challenges of growing up black and gay in a decidedly masculine hip-hop world.

Abraham loosely based his dance on the story of Pinocchio. In his program note, Abraham wrote that following the suicide of gay Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, “I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed…I just wanted to be a robot, a puppet, but may without the lederhosen.”

Instead of Pinocchio’s suspenders, Abraham wears a sequin shirt at the start of The Realest MC. He’s lying on the floor like a ragtag doll, unable to move at first, but he gradually rises to his feet, balances on his toes, then moves about in jerky, angular modern dance motions. He’s the proverbial puppet coming to life, although he does so not to a sappy Disney score but rather to a soundtrack of industrial white noise. This Pinocchio comes out in a desolate dystopia.

The Realest MC is an ensemble piece, and on Friday night the members of the choreographer’s Abraham.In.Motion dance company performed with mixed results. The men, Chalvar Monteiro and Maleek Washington, danced athletically and readily conveyed the tough, chauvinistic side of hip-hop street culture.

The women – Brittanie Brown, Rena Butler, Rachelle Rafailedes and Addison Sanford – danced robustly and were entertaining to watch. But in the end, they mostly seemed to be working their way through stock modern dance movements – an angular balance here, a vigorous lap around the stage there – that did little to add to the story or to our substantive understanding of sexuality.

The Realest MC’s unusual set design included a Carrie Schneider film of urban scenes that was shown on vertical blinds on the back wall. Footage of young men running frantically behind the blinds created a sense of people who were trapped in a world they couldn’t escape. Gratefully, that screen was also used for comic relief, in the form of an instructional video that showed a decidedly unhip white woman trying to teach hip-hop dance. “Hip-hop is an attitude,” says the woman, who clearly looked and sounded more like a fan of the Rippingtons than of 50 Cent.

Abraham played off that video beautifully with a scene in which he supposedly offered instruction in the hip-hop roll. Suffice it to say that his movements were more feminine than masculine.

In the end, Abraham presumably found peace with himself. He concluded the performance dancing to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.” As the music drew to a close, Abraham was again in his sequins, with his back to the audience. It was perhaps too contrived an ending, but it did allow Abraham to shine one last time.

Photo credit: Paula Court

Abraham will appear at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery, where he will respond to works in the Weems retrospective. A conversation between Abraham and Bridgette Kohnhorst, curator of Vanderbilt’s Great Performances, will follow. For information, call (615) 744-3999.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.