Mozart’s unfinished Requiem could be the music for a compelling dance work. For MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham, however, Mozart is just the starting point. His “Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth” is an hour of imaginative and ambitious theater, with an electronic Mozart meditation by composer and producer Jlin, costumes by British fashion designer Giles Deacon, and set and lighting by longtime Abraham associate Dan Scully. The piece, whose co-commissioners include the Celebrity Series of Boston, debuted in Hamburg in August 2021 and has since been presented at Stanford University and Lincoln Center. On Friday, the Celebrity Series gave “Requiem” its Boston premiere at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, and if the piece doesn’t quite live up to its title, it does showcase Abraham’s remarkable dancers.
The idea for “Requiem” came from the Mostly Mozart Festival, which suggested to Abraham that he choreograph something to Mozart. Abraham, by his own admission “a bit of a depressive person,” lighted on the Requiem, but when Lincoln Center told him he wouldn’t have live music, he asked Jlin, whose background is in Chicago footwork, to fashion a score for the work. Jlin bookends her composition with Mozart’s Introit/Kyrie and Benedictus; in between, samples of the Requiem spit and stutter, move into retrograde, repeat repeat repeat. From time to time, snatches of the Dies Irae and the Lacrimosa and the Domine Jesu’s “Quam olim Abrahae” fugue emerge from the polyrhythmic cacophony. Think of it as Mozart heard over a bad connection from outer space.
Deacon’s costumes also suggest a kind of Afrofuturism. He’s put the 10 dancers in belted white tunics of varying lengths, or tops and skirts, some of which puff out like a classical tutu, plus white undershorts. Every look is different, but they all include bumps and bulges that suggest flotation devices. Scully’s set is anchored by a large oculus at the rear; sometimes that shows projections of what might be black ink in water, or lines in sand, and sometimes it’s just a neon-outlined orb in glowing red, gold, green, black, or purple. Framing the stage are four tall tubes that suggest candles; they change color and rise and fall. Scully’s subdued lighting is atmospheric but often shrouds the dancing.
The opening few minutes left me wondering what “Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth” might have looked like if Abraham had simply set it on a recording of the Requiem. There’s grace and geometry in the movement patterns, and when the choral singing of the Introit gives way to solos, the dancing follows suit. Dusk turns to night as Abraham’s choreography illuminates the music rather than merely illustrating it.
Then one dancer begins to shake, the Kyrie ends, and Jlin’s score starts up. It’s kinetic, it’s invigorating, it’s fun, but it bypasses the Requiem text’s message of salvation and life everlasting, and it doesn’t help to shape the next 45 minutes. Abraham’s dancers are in a state of bliss one moment, torment the next; imprecation gives way to desolation. Two dancers face off for a moment; then the community intervenes. What might be folktales are enacted. Solos and duets come and go. Eventually the vibe grows less African tribal and more American contemporary. There are squabbles and misunderstandings; couples joke and argue; people slip into social and ballroom dancing. A man looks up at the oculus as if in accusation, looks at the audience as if befuddled, exits as if talking to himself. The narrative, if there is one, never comes into focus.
Eventually Jlin’s deconstruction makes way for the Benedictus. A supine figure is raised up by the company; the oculus, in what is surely a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” conceives a starchild. The dancers kneel and then rise as the music fades out. We’ve arrived at acceptance, at communal celebration, at rebirth. The end of the journey is welcome. The journey itself remains a mystery.
“Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth”
Choreography by Kyle Abraham in collaboration with A.I.M. Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with commissioned score by Jlin. Costumes by Giles Deacon. Set and lighting by Dan Scully. Performed by A.I.M by Kyle Abraham. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Friday Nov. 18.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.