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This Incredible Dance Portrays the Impact of Mass Incarceration on African-American Families

3 minute read

Art is both a representation and a reflection of the way things are. It’s also a vision of the way the world might be. And for Kyle Abraham, choreographer and founder of the dance group Abraham.In.Motion, those juxtaposing forces were key in the creation of Untitled America.

The trio of dances, Abraham’s first commission for the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance American Dance Theater, is a statement on incarceration in America. Specifically, it carries a message about the heavy toll that imprisonment takes on families, particularly in African-American communities. In the three pieces, Abraham also explores how imprisonment becomes a part of a convict’s identity, remaining with him or her like a second skin that can’t be shed.

“I’ve had family members who’ve gone in and out of the prison system,” says Abraham. “And I remember talking to my mother most Christmases when she had just finished speaking to one of her brothers who was incarcerated. And my experience of getting to know them after they’ve already gone through the system got me thinking about how isolated and separated people can feel from a family. I was trying to dive into how we can think about what that process is like on both sides — having a family member who’s gone through the system and someone who maybe hasn’t.”

The work focuses on a few central figures who journey through the loss of freedom, the isolation and the challenges of being separated from society. It’s accompanied by haunting melodies as well as spoken word narratives, some from former prisoners about their experience as inmates.

It’s Abraham’s statement about one of the most potent, and inevitably, disruptive forces in the African-American community today. While he admits he’s not an activist or an advocate, as an artist, “so much of what I do is trying to make work that reflects society or addresses history and its relationship to our current state,” he says. “And it’s important for me as voice in my capacity as an artist in this country for however long we’re able to make art, to show that I see through my lens.”

Abraham doesn’t see himself, or his work, as particularly political, but does appreciate that as racial tensions and attitudes about immigration continue to percolate throughout our culture, especially now that art such as dance can serve as a platform for encouraging dialogue and discussion rather than nurturing misconception and hate. “There’s something about art that has the power to be both safe and extremely dangerous in the most beautiful way,” he says. So if we allow it to have that power, that power can change the world and change lives as it has been doing since the beginning of time.”

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Write to Julia Lull at julia.lull@time.com