Kyle Abraham: A Life in Motion
The works of choreographer Kyle Abraham feel like a memoir.
Kyle Abraham wants to choreograph the full scope of the human experience. He takes on issues he finds personally meaningful: identity, prejudice, love, and loss, in ways that are both specific and universal.
Kyle Abraham: It's not as imperative that you see exactly what I see, or feel exactly what I feel. But I think it's really exciting for me when people have some kind of experience from the work. And these works generally have such a kind of social commentary that I think people can connect in some way.
But don't let Abraham's humility obscure the fact that he's a really big deal in the dance world. After winning a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "Genius Grant," in 2013, his career was put into hyper-speed. This meant a wealth of performance opportunities, lots of attention, and health insurance for his dancers. But it also meant he was forced to present works he didn't feel were fully finished, just to satisfy demand.
Abraham: Performing something that you really—at the time it's being presented—doesn't feel finished, is pretty devastating. And that's happened to me now, more than once. A show that happened thereafter didn't feel finished, either. I was still working out pieces. So now, kind of years later, I feel like this new work, Dearest Home, is healing for a whole host of reasons. But it's me saying, "Yes, this is what I want to do. This is a finished product that people will see. This is something I feel so full about in every way.” It's very personal, but I'm also really proud of it. And I haven't been proud of something that I've made in a while.
That latest work, Dearest Home, was the result of a much slower, more deliberate process. Its world premiere in May 2017 came several years after its inception. But, for Abraham, its themes have yet to lose their emotional resonance.
Abraham: The title Dearest Home, for me, is really personal. It's bringing together two different things. One, these letters that my father used to write to my mother when they were in college, and they all began, "My dearest Jackie..." And I found a lot of these letters when my mother was moving out of our home. My partner at the time and I were helping her pack up things and we found a lot of these letters. And then the second half, "Home," for me, was in correlation with my then-partner, someone who I saw as my home. I spent so much time on the road, that it's hard for me to think about how I can consider a place a home, or something that makes me feel just settled in some way. And he was that for me. We're no longer together and my mother is no longer with us either. So it's been a really interesting process and project, having experienced those two different types of loss within this creative process, well after the piece was titled. And the themes of love and loss were part of its kind of incubation.
Dearest Home audiences have the option to wear headsets to hear musical accompaniment. The dancers, on the other hand, have never heard the soundtrack.
Abraham: And they never will. But this work is first generated from a feeling, and then from that feeling becomes movement, so that it all seems really natural and more than palpable. It seems that you have to kind of be living in that skin. The challenge for them is to figure out how to really live physically in the work, while people are right in front of them. It's a really vulnerable place—so much so that me, as the choreographer, it's really clear, I think, to people when they're watching this that I am ideally telling parts of myself. So the vulnerability that that's taking is really trying, in some ways, because—
AJC: You're up there with all of them.
Abraham: Yeah, I'm up there. People are seeing my truth or seeing—they're kind of reading, not to be super cliché, but they're kind of reading my journal.
AJC: You've always allowed that, though—
Abraham: Yeah, I'm a pretty open guy.
But in rare instances, Abraham's work is ultimately too personal for him to continue performing. Such was the case with 2010's The Radio Show, which reflected on his father's descent into Alzheimer's.
Abraham: I made the work when my father was still alive, and I just remember performing that work. I wasn't trying to imitate him, but I was trying to kind of live in his essence as a performer. And after he passed, doing it just became that much more real and emotional for me to do. So every time I'd leave stage, it was really hard. So that work, the company has performed without me in it a couple of times. I think we may go back and start performing it again, but it's a hard one for me to watch.
Happily, those charged with realizing Abraham's artistic visions really do get him.
Jeremy Jae Neal (dancer): What I think is really interesting about Kyle is that he sticks to speaking about his personal experiences, and combining that with the social-political climate that's happening currently. He speaks from a black, gay male perspective often—which is what I am as well so I can connect and relate—and also helps to distribute that perspective.
Tamisha Guy (dancer): For me, I think I kind of just pull from my life and what I'm going through. If a situation kind of seems similar, or just the feeling maybe, it can relate in some way. I kind of try to bring that in.
Ultimately, Kyle Abraham has two requirements of his dancers in every performance that have nothing to do with technique: be honest and be emotionally present.
Abraham: Those things are very important for what we're doing. You can get too in your head and then it seems very false. But the authenticity is more important than getting around for however many turns or getting your leg into a certain place.