In a split bill at Damrosch Park Bandshell in New York City, Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “Word Becomes Flesh” and Kyle Abraham’s “Pavement” explored race, power and, most specifically, what it means to be a black man in contemporary society as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors series last Thursday night. Using spoken word, movement and music, Mr. Joseph takes on the issues confronting black fatherhood in “Word Becomes Flesh,” which program notes describe as a “choreopoem.” First performed in 2003 by Mr. Joseph, the work is a recitation of letters written to his unborn son. Now “Word” is reimagined for an ensemble cast of six. The performers share their fears about bringing a child — first addressed as “heartbeat” and later as “brown boy” — into the world.
Spurts of movement — diagonal runs from the wings; slow, exaggerated steps; and springy jumps — often serve to accentuate the wistful text, which magnifies the idea of multiple, insecure fathers-to-be. “You have an intrinsically intimate relationship with your mother,” one dancer says, “but your dad didn’t check out when you were in the womb.”
For all of its words, Mr. Joseph’s loquacious piece lacks poetry. Mr. Abraham’s “Pavement” is more elegiac, yet the thorny sightlines of the Damrosch bandshell did the piece few favors. Mr. Abraham is a beautiful dancer — unpredictable and spry, with the kind of articulation that is likely to become only more refined and subtle with age — but his packed productions are somewhat unconvincing. “Pavement,” influenced by the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood,” is set in the historically black neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. It was there, at 14, that Mr. Abraham first watched the Singleton movie; audio clips from the film are included in the production.
Tension is wonderful in a work, and Mr. Abraham’s propensity for moving his dancers in multiple directions — his movement phrases show a body swirling one way and then the next before evading momentum with a backward hop in arabesque — can be exhilarating. But the push and pull between narrative and dancing throughout “Pavement” gives it a choppy, locomotive feel. The film audio is overkill.
Everything we need to know is already there: a man is grabbed from behind and placed face down on the floor. Dancers, shifting seamlessly between the weight of street dance and the elevation and precision of ballet, glide in harmony to classical music. Silent runs around the stage cleanse the scenes, creating a hypnotic effect that ranges from emphatic to peaceful.
But when the dancers pile on top of one another in the final moments, Mr. Abraham sets it to Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Instantly, Mr. Abraham undercuts himself with melodrama. “Pavement” is cluttered with ideas, yet it seems like a dance that Mr. Abraham could work on for the rest of his life. He just needs to find the essence.