Dance ICONS is a global network for choreographers of all levels of experience, nationalities, and genres. We offer a cloud-based platform for knowledge exchange, collaboration, inspiration, and debate. Dance ICONS is based in Washington, D.C., and serves choreographers the world over.
Subscribe today to receive our news and updates. Become a member of your global artistic community -- join the ICONS!
Known for his avant-garde aesthetic, as well as his originality and politically-minded downtown sensibility, the American choreographer Kyle Abraham fuses dance genres and all types of human motion. ICONS talked to him about his creative process, as he premieres his newest work Drive at the Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center.
Dance ICONS: A Pittsburgh native, you’re the son of two educators who gave you a very arts-focused upbringing.
Kyle Abraham: Both my parents worked in the Pittsburgh public schools. I went to the public schools but not the ones where they worked. I studied Spanish from elementary through high school. Then I switched to French eventually. My parents introduced my sister and me to the arts at a young age, so we both had private painting classes on the weekends at Carnegie Mellon and we both had piano lessons. I switched from piano to cello when I was in elementary school.
ICONS: You recently took a trip to Paisley Park to pay homage to Prince. The late artist has been a huge influence on your life and on your decision to dance. Tell us about that.
KA: My sister, Keisha, is five years older than I am. She gave me an ultimatum when I was little: I had to make a choice between Prince and Michael Jackson. I easily chose Prince: If you really love music and you’re comparing someone who can play 23 instruments and never had a lesson in his life against someone who dances and can walk backwards but you don’t think even writes his own songs, clearly you’re going to go with the one who plays 23 instruments and writes his own music. It wasn’t a hard decision.
It was all that love that ultimately introduced me to dance. I went to see the Joffrey Ballet because they were performing to Prince’s music -- Billboards. I didn’t really know anything at all about dance. I had no interest in dance, but it was something related to Prince. I was so connected to what he was doing and I was so excited by what I saw. A friend later invited me to watch her take a jazz dance class, and then she got me to audition for the high school musical, Once on This Island. I had long hair in twists at the time … I was the only guy cast as a chorus dancer.
ICONS: In your choreographic process, you take a long time, and simultaneously, you also work quickly. Can you explain that?
KA: While each piece is different, generally I may start collecting information or doing bits of research sonically a year or two in advance. I start researching certain time periods musically and pulling different parts of history together. I love anthropology and history because they make me want to think about the historical context and time periods that the work may be inspired by or as something current I want to relate to. The works that we’re making right now I started more than a year ago.
Right now I’m setting the music and I’m trying to figure out how I connect to the music and what drew me to this music. Sometimes I’ll start with an intention for the dancers and allow improvisation to be the jumping off point, but the majority of the time the original impulse comes from my body. And 100 percent of the time, the themes of the work are coming from my mind and experience.
ICONS: What happens once you get dancers in the studio? Do you have a set music score and a movement score or do you play and improvise with the dancers?
KA: That shifts a good deal. Generally speaking, I come in with some phrase material. I’m not super keen on phrases simply as phrases. Sometimes I will have a movement intention in my mind and I videotape myself moving. Then I ask the dancers to learn that. We edit it and build upon it. Sometimes I come in with actual dance phrases and then we’ll create variations. I’ll have them pair up and see how we can dissect the phrase and make it something different. At the very beginning, I come in with some movement for the dancers to try on and we’ll see how it fits before we make any alterations. I don’t tell them what the themes are for a long time; sometimes not until a year later.
ICONS: That’s so interesting because you ruminate with that material for so long. Why?
KA: It can color things. Every time I make a composition, there’s a long period where I don’t talk about what the dance is about. Especially if I’m with new collaborators. I love the post-modern aesthetic of really being human. I don’t want something that is too over-performed, and that can happen if I talk too much about the piece. With my company, sometimes I want to see where the movement can go without any additional information. Sometimes there’s a major shift when I allow that to happen. I also don’t play the music until much later. That could just be my love of the Cunningham/Cage aesthetic. I don’t like the dancers to try to hit every note or beat. That drives me insane. I think about the phrasing and musicality ahead of time and the more dancers get familiar with the music, they have a tendency to connect with every single beat. I want the music to be highlighted in a way that doesn’t make it obsolete.
ICONS: Politics is not far from any of your works. I recall you stating that putting an African American man on stage will be viewed as a political statement. How does your work fit into our current political moment?
KA: We have a long way to go before any person of color can be in the space without there being a question of the intent behind that person’s presence in the space. Part of that conversation involves just thinking about who stands next to whom in a way that doesn’t create any kind of political story. Of course, I’m viewed as a black chorographer. I think if I were a white choreographer and had a white person in space, or even two white men in space, no one would think twice. As a black choreographer having a white man standing there is questioned. Similarly, if it’s a black man, the question becomes something he’s trying to address here with a black body.
There’s so much static around race and so much lives in how we look at history, especially as it relates to the black body. I find this weird contrapuntal relationship between sorrow and pride, which at times conflict with one another and other times support. When you see a black body in space, there’s already a curiosity about where it’s standing in that conversation between sorrow and pride -- think about who’s standing next to that black body. Is it another black body? Is it two black women together? Is it a black man and a black woman? Is it a black man or woman next to an Asian man or woman? What are all these connections and how do they intersect and what is that conversation about? I still think it’s impossible for a choreographer of color to make a work that doesn’t instantly bring those questions up for our viewers.
ICONS: Can choreography change us, change our minds and our ways of thinking about bodies and politics?
KA: Yes. Especially if you’re someone like me who thinks that choreography is everything around us. But in the ways we’re exposed to it, choreography is an entryway to empathy. It’s an entryway to joy. It is as dangerous as it is safe in terms of how we get people to think about change, about privilege. I think that, yes, choreography can definitely change us.
ICONS: You recently took a position in the Department of World Cultures and Dance at the University of California Los Angeles. Now you’re not with your company all the time. You danced with David Dorfman, who is both a choreographer and a professor at Connecticut College. Is your company model inspired by his?
KA: In some ways. The great thing about my company is that we do so much repertory, it just worked out. I have a great support system in the company. Both Matthew Baker and Tamisha Guy run rehearsals and they don’t really need me there when they’re going back and setting older works. They get the work’s performance ready, then I come in and coach and give the dancers feedback on the intention of the work and its subtleties. Or, one of the original company members may come back to coach the dancers of the company as well to give additional insight. [This model] has worked out really well. The space is stress free for everybody. When I come to work, I have a really specific focus and there’s a job set for me to complete. When I’m there and they’re learning off of video, then I’m just working on emails. I’m not needed until they learn it all.
ICONS: You formed Abraham.In.Motion while you were still in graduate school at New York University. What do you wish you had known about becoming a choreographer that you didn’t know when you started?
KA: I didn’t think I knew how lonely it would be. It’s a pretty lonely life. Even when I am in the studio with the dancers, there’s a divide. We’re all there for the same purpose but there is a reality that … the choreographer, whose name is on the program, is responsible.
A 2013 MacArthur Fellow, a 2015 City Center Choreographer in Residence, and a 2016 Doris Duke Recipient, Kyle Abraham began his dance training at the Civic Light Opera Academy and the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He continued his dance studies in New York, receiving a BFA from SUNY Purchase and an MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In 2011 Out Magazine lauded Abraham as the “best and brightest creative talent to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama.”
In the fall of 2016, he joined the faculty of the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. In November 2012, Abraham was named the New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned Artist for 2012-2014. One month later, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater premiered Abraham’s “Another Night” at New York’s City Center to rave reviews. Rebecca Bengal of Vogue wrote, “What Abraham brings to Ailey is an avant-garde aesthetic, an original and politically minded downtown sensibility that doesn’t distinguish between genres but freely draws on a vocabulary that is as much Merce and Martha as it is Eadweard Muybridge and Michael Jackson.”
That same year, Abraham was named the 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient and a 2012 USA Ford Fellow. Abraham received a prestigious Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance in Dance for his work in The Radio Show. He was selected as one of Dance Magazine’s “25 To Watch” in 2009.
His choreography has been presented throughout the United States and abroad, most recently at On The Boards, South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, REDCAT, Philly Live Arts, Portland’s Time Based Arts Festival, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Danspace Project, Dance Theater Workshop, Bates Dance Festival, Harlem Stage, Fall for Dance Festival at New York’s City Center, Montreal, Germany, Jordan, Ecuador, Dublin’s Project Arts Center, The Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, The Andy Warhol Museum, and The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In addition to performing and developing new works for his company, Abraham.In.Motion, Abraham created a pas de deux for himself and acclaimed Bessie Award-winning former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan as part of Restless Creature. His latest work, “Drive,” will premiere in October 2017 at the Fall for Dance Festival at New York’s City Center, and A.I.M. premieres a program of his new works in the spring of 2018.
Interviewer: Lisa Traiger ©
Photography: Ian Douglas ©, Sharon Bradford © Courtesy of Abraham.In.Motion ©
Editor: Camilla Acquista, Dance ICONS, Inc. October, 2017 ©