Interview | Kyle Abraham
Choreographer Kyle Abraham began his dance training in Pittsburgh, at the Civic Light Opera Academy and the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and continued his dance studies in New York, receiving a BFA from SUNY–Purchase and an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
New York Live Arts Resident Commissioned Artist for 2012–14, recipient of a New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award, a Princess Grace Award for Choreography and the 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, Abraham is also a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, a 2012 USA Ford Fellow and one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” for 2009.
In addition to performing and developing new works for his company, Abraham.In.Motion, he recently premiered The Serpent and the Smoke for himself and Bessie Award–winning New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan — one of four duets comprising Whelan’s “Restless Creature,” playing the Harris Theater for Music and Dance January 21, 2015.
OUT magazine calls Abraham the “best and brightest creative talent to emerge in New York City in the age of Obama.” Here is a partial transcript of his recent conversation with Zachary Whittenburg, manager of communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and member of the Chicago Dancemakers Forum consortium.
You’ve mentioned your “Plan A” for Chicago Dancing Festival commission Counterpoint, for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, involved working with DJ Rashad. The piece, however, is set to music by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Johannes Brahms. Can you explain what happened?
At the time we decided to go ahead with this project I was thinking about the history of Hubbard Street, its roots in Chicago, and was wondering what connections I could make with Chicago through this piece. I’m interested in the urban landscape, which led me to DJ Rashad, Common and some other artists — also to Kanye [West], who I love.
How far did that plan go?
We were in the process of getting connected; [Hubbard Street General Manager] Kristen Brogdon was making headway to help us sort it all out. Then, the day I flew here to Chicago to begin the piece, I was listening to some music that had a nice emotion to it, just while I was working on the plane — and I heard that DJ Rashad had passed away the night before, which was shocking.
The music I was listening to was by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which is now part of the score for Counterpoint. I guess this piece is in some ways “in memory of” [DJ Rashad], without fully going there.
You’ve decided to share credit for the choreography with the dancers of Hubbard Street. Specifically more so in the case of the men’s material?
Not for me. I generally don’t think about gender so much. I would hope that a woman could do anything a man can do, and a man could do anything a woman can do. And that anyone who wants to define themselves as anything other than those terms can do whatever they want to, too.
One cast will premiere Counterpoint August 20 at the Harris Theater, but you’re preparing two casts now, for the work’s return during Hubbard Street’s December engagement, Princess Grace Awards: New Works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. How much do you try to keep those two casts’ interpretations of the work like carbon copies? Is there one definitive version of Counterpoint you want both groups of dancers to realize onstage?
There are certain things that have to stay the same. The unison moments, the information [both casts] share, should be the same. The solo Emilie [Leriche] and Kellie [Epperheimer] have at the beginning of the piece is material taken from videos of me. I realize they will look different — both from me and from each other — but I think as long as certain dynamics are there, the intention is there, and the transitions seem honest: Those are the key things in that solo. It has to have an honest, earnest quality to it.
Are there roles cast differently gender-wise, between the two groups?
Yeah, although again, that’s less my intention and more just a result of the way they move. Bryna [Pascoe], Jonathan [Fredrickson], Andrew [Murdock] and Ana [Lopez] all share the same role. Johnny [McMillan] and Ali [Delgadillo] share the same role. One thing that’s interesting to me, also unintentional, is that because of how things are arranged, at some point in the dance, there is always a same-sex couple. Sometimes it’s two men, sometimes two women.
What’s your favorite thing to hear a dancer say to you in the studio?
I guess, ideally, that it “feels good.” I think I want the movement to feel good. Whether it does to them right now… [Laughs] I know it’s an exhausting piece. The solo that David [Schultz] and Kevin [Shannon] do is really exhausting.
The weird thing about being a choreographer is that you always feel like you’re hosting a party. You’re looking around the space and making sure that everyone’s engaged in some way, and it’s really hard when you feel like not everyone is. I’m always trying to be attuned to that.
To what degree do you consider the audience in the same way?
I don’t want to pander to an audience, at all. I do like to sneak things into a dance. There’s a moment or two in Counterpoint when a dancer might do the Butterfly, you know, or some old-school dance, for a second, but it’s so short. Only people familiar with that dance will get that reference.
Let’s talk about Chicago. Had you spent any significant amount of time here before this process started?
Not really. I have a lot of friends from Pittsburgh who moved to Chicago — pretty much everyone I went to high school with moved to Chicago at some point — and vice versa: I met a lot of people in Pittsburgh who’d moved there from Chicago. I came here with David Dorfman Dance years ago; we performed two programs at the Dance Center [of Columbia College Chicago].
What do you like most about Chicago?
The food, hands down, no question. Little Goat has an onion brioche French toast with fried chicken — the Bull’s Eye is what it’s called — and it’s so good.
What are you reading these days?
Go Tell It on the Mountain. Bill [T. Jones] told me to read it. I’ve read a lot of other [James] Baldwin — I love Baldwin. I have a bootleg copy of Morrissey’s autobiography, too, that I can’t wait to start.
There are performances remaining this summer in the “Restless Creature” tour with New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan, and Hubbard Street Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. What else do you have going on right now?
Around the same time that this work premieres, the new website for my company goes live. I go right to Germany at the end of August for Tanzmesse in Düsseldorf, then my next big premieres are the last week of September and the first week of October, at New York Live Arts. I made four new works all premiering at the same time. “When the Wolves Came In” is the title of one of those programs, and the other one is called “The Watershed.”
Counterpoint by Kyle Abraham for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a Chicago Dancing Festival commission, premieres August 20 at 7:30pm. Free tickets for the performance at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance are “sold out,” but not required for the live simulcast in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Catch the return of Counterpoint during Princess Grace Awards: New Works December 4–14 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Edlis Neeson Theater. Part of Hubbard Street’s Season 37 subscription programming, this winter engagement features premieres by Abraham and fellow Princess Grace Award recipients for choreography Victor Quijada and Robyn Mineko Williams. Single tickets are available beginning August 25 at hubbardstreetdance.com.
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