The Adventures of Pinocchio — the 19th-century Italian children’s novel made famous by Walt Disney’s animated film — follows a mischievous marionette that, after a series of fantastical adventures, becomes a real boy. Troubled by recent headlines about bullied gay youth, choreographer Kyle Abraham reinvents the tale of Pinocchio in Live! The Realest MC, a new work that examines gender roles in the hip-hop community. When Pinocchio becomes human, it’s an uplifting occasion, and it happens in an instant with a fairy’s kiss. Abraham’s quest for “realness” — the ability to blend in — is a progression, and a painful one.
The work features seven dancers — all thrilling performers — but the journey is mostly Abraham’s. He immediately proves himself to be a riveting dancer with his first, puppet-like solo. He twists his body in spasms, and once he reaches a comfortable static pose — his hands placed on his hips — it’s interrupted again by irrepressible inner turmoil. The other dancers enter and begin wildly break-dancing, and Abraham appears frightened but attempts to fit in, mirroring their mechanical nonstop motion. Abraham’s co-stars all have violent streaks, and Maleek Malaki Washington plays the primary aggressor, detecting Abraham’s weakness and at one point pushing him to the ground. The costumes, designed by Abraham and Kristi Wood, reflect the characters’ attitudes: Abraham begins in a shirt covered gold sequins that send specks of warm light throughout the room; the others, concerned only with uniformity, don black tracksuits.
Slowly, the harsh surroundings force Abraham’s character to hide what makes him unique — and his implied interest in men — to devote himself to complete conformity: He replaces his gold garments with black ones and performs a series of basic hip-hop steps — the hip roll, the “thinking man” pose — while listening to a taped lesson. (“Do that and I guarantee the girls will like it,” the voice assures.) When Abraham delivers his schizophrenic monologue, however, we see that his attempts at self-denial have failed. “How you feelin’?” Brooklyn, where you at?” he asks the crowd in a booming voice. He maintains the macho persona for a few moments but soon regresses into a sobbing child: “Mommy, I didn’t do anything, and he hit me! He kicked me!”
And Abraham’s character isn’t alone in wanting to blend in. Chalvar Monteiro, another irresistible dancer, struts onstage in a short sequined dress and for a feminine solo with balletic inflections, pirouetting gracefully and extending a leg above his head in développé. His inverse is Elyse Morris, who oozes masculine aggression through her rough movements, pausing only to run a comb across her head as she purses her lips. Monteiro and Morris reveal our expectations only to shatter them, demonstrating that gender and hip-hop are identities based entirely in performance. That idea is humorously reinforced by a hip-hop dance tutorial projected on the theater’s rear wall. The instructor is an unlikely one: Dena Rizzo, a diminutive white woman. The audience giggles at her lack of self-awareness and unconvincing execution, but there’s a grain of truth to her instructions: Hip-hop is about posturing. We laugh only because she lacks realness.
The work isn’t without a few flaws: Much of the group choreography seems redundant, and it mostly pales in comparison to Abraham’s electrifying solos. (Two of the best passages were previewed this year at the Abrons Arts Center, and they easily could stand alone.) Still, Abraham’s core is strong, and his character follows a compelling arc. In his final solo, set to soft piano music, his now-familiar hip-hop steps take on a lyrical quality. His arms move fluidly as they cross his chest, and when he places a hand on his chin, he’s not striking a pose but truly thinking. Removing his jacket to reveal a black shirt with sequins on the back, Abraham makes hip-hop his own and proves that — as both a dancer and a choreographer — he’s the real deal.