Kyle Abraham’s When We Fell review – study of stillness and isolation in black and white

Lyndsey Winship
·2 min read

Things have moved up a notch when it comes to filming dance. New York City Ballet has just announced Sofia Coppola will be directing its next dance film, but this latest, When We Fell, already moves the medium into a new sphere.

The cinematographer is Ryan Marie Helfant, who usually works with Beyoncé and Solange, and here co-directed with choreographer Kyle Abraham. There’s a distinct style and cool distance in Helfant’s aesthetic, filmed in black and white – in fact it’s more like a soft greyscale – and there’s something out of time and otherworldly about the result.

The first scene is filmed in the vast lobby of the David H. Koch Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center. The architecture dominates the screen, its lines, curves and repetitions, a giant Elie Nadelman sculpture of two women dwarfing the eight dancers’ own figures. This scale changes your perspective on these bodies, sometimes seen in aerial view with a detachment as if observing slow-growing plantlife.

Abraham’s steady, unhurried choreography plays out in its own lines, curves and repetitions. He makes dance with compositional nous, with satisfying patterns and subtle motifs. The movement is Merce Cunningham-esque in its careful pace and clear shapes (and also the unitards), but it has ballet’s surrender to beauty, and then unexpected embellishment, like the ripple of a shoulder as a dancer’s arms settle into third position, the same movement a popper might make in hip-hop, transposed into classical dance. The second and third sections are filmed on stage, more conventional but still arresting, not least the morphing and blooming shadows created by the dancers in the final pas de deux.

This is dance that quietly draws you in. The mood is contemplative, transporting, the tone set by the lone notes and gentle clashes of Morton Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos (subsequent sections use more piano music by Jason Moran and Nico Muhly). When We Fell was made during a winter residency in snowy upstate New York, pondering the stillness of the world outside and our year of isolation, and that’s exquisitely rendered here in dance and film.