10 Minutes with Kyle Abraham

September 30, 2015

The dancemaker takes on Tupac, Biggie and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Photo by Steven Schreiber, courtesy Abraham.

Kyle Abraham’s provocative modern choreography often deals with the difficult themes of racism and identity. This fall, he’s looking to further explore these ideas by collaborating with visual and musical artists. He recently spoke about his new piece, Absent Matter, which will be shown November 10–15 at The Joyce Theater in New York City, as well as the pressures of continuing to create after receiving the prestigious MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2013.

What are you looking to explore in this work?

Absent Matter
is a collaboration with visual artist Tahir Hemphill. We have been having a conversation about the absence of black lives in all facets of American culture, and now the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. We want to explore hip hop’s political lineage—the infamy of artists such as Biggie and Tupac, with their “born to die” ethos—to create an abstracted dialogue about race in America. Hemphill makes art from algorithms, and I am going to map out movement sequences with the data he is collecting from police violence reports.

What got you interested in using live music?

Last year I did a premiere in Lyon, France, and got to work with live musicians there. When I got home, I realized I wanted to do more. Otis Brown III, who is creating the score for Absent Matter with Kris Bowers, has been in rehearsals with his drums. It’s great to have everyone creating in the same room. The jazz idiom is all about playing with improvisation. And while that creates a liveliness and energetic exchange, we also will need to find some consistency. So the musicians will improvise a little bit, but we will set time and movement cues.

What pressures has the MacArthur Fellowship put on your work?

At my last show at New York Live Arts, the works I presented weren’t ready. We premiered two works from one technical residency, and I needed more time to see all the projections and scenic elements together. It was too much too soon. I told one of my peers, who is in the running for the MacArthur, “You should get a therapist now.” I mean this in the most helpful, supportive way. It was hard to know who to trust and how to trust; it affected my personal life in all kinds of ways I never expected. And while it gave me more freedom as a choreographer, there was also more responsibility. There are more eyes on me.

What’s on tap after this?

Choreographically I have projects to last me to 2020 for both my company and commissions from other companies. I will premiere the first installment of a new series called Untitled America for Alvin Ailey next year. And I hope to tour the two works from the NYLA residency now that they are clearer in their message. There are a lot of exciting collaborations in store.