Breaking Stereotypes

How Kyle Abraham Feels About Being NYCB's First Black Choreographer in More Than a Decade

Kyle Abraham choreographing on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Last month, Kyle Abraham was announced as one of the six choreographers contributing new work to New York City Ballet's 2018-19 season.

In its 70-year history, NYCB has only commissioned four black choreographers—all men: John Alleyne and Ulysses Dove in 1994, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Robert Garland in collaboration with Robert LaFosse in 2000, and Albert Evans in 2002 and 2005. It's been 11 years since Evans, an NYCB alum, made work for the company and 18 years since a black choreographer outside of NYCB has been invited to choreograph.

Take a moment to take that in.


Abraham's own company A.I.M is currently performing at The Joyce Theater now through May 6. The movement vernacular is mercurial amalgam that morphs through numerous genres— modern, contemporary, ballet, hip-hip. It is a crazy, sexy, cool fusion of elite/street/afro-punkism that is a visual feast, a delicious "postmodern gumbo" as he calls it.

It is hard to imagine what he will do with the dancers of NYCB, or they with him.

Although people (especially those of color) are ecstatic for Brother Kyle, many are wondering if this is an overt signifier of the changing of the guard at NYCB resulting in real diversification of the choreographic roster, or if it's just pacification by ticking a box.

Abraham Knows The Responsibility He's Taking On

The gravity that accompanies this honor is not lost on Kyle Abraham. Since opportunities for black artists come in cycles like a blue moon or Haley's comet, there is a compound interest on their success or failure.

"Not only am I a black choreographer I'm a modern choreographer," he says. "I have a fear that if this piece is seen as a failure, they will never hire another black choreographer again." It sounds dramatic, but it could happen: although the Garland/LaFosse collaboration Tributaries received favorable reviews, Garland was never asked back to set an individual work on the company.

Abraham's breakout 2006 piece Inventing Pookie Jenkins played off the idea of a black male dancer in a romantic tutu. Photo by Kristi Pitsch

The responsibility for "representing the race in toto" is laid squarely upon his shoulders, when in fact, Abraham states eloquently, "I just want to make a beautiful work in the same way the other two choreographers on that program are going into a work, but they don't have that same weight on them. God bless them… Don't get me wrong, this is definitely not a boo hoo hoo, but it's not something that the other choreographers will have to deal with."

This reality brings a laundry list of concerns that Abraham plays mental pool with:

"Part of me wants to use classical music because I think that some people wouldn't think that this black man would know classical music, when in fact I have studied it for a very long time. If I do use classical music, am I selling out? Should I actually flip it…and if I do, then who am I really serving? Who I am I being honest to? Do I have to make something that has this social commentary? If I do, how do I do that on a company that is predominantly white? Because if I do, then that makes it seem like the people of color who I choose to work with are only there to make a social commentary, which is not the case."

In short, he's damned if he does, damned he doesn't.

His Work Will Undoubtedly Be Seen Through a Different Lens

The implicit cultural bias inherent in dance criticism rarely takes work by artists of color simply for what is presented on stage. Critiques are often tainted by the culturally ignorant or assuming lens of the white gaze and riddled with their unfulfilled expectations: "I wished he would have…" "I would have liked to have seen…" which speak more about the critic than the work.

No matter what he presents, Abrahams' blackness and the chasm of 18 years will undoubtedly trump his divergent genre. The underlying question will not be, What does a piece created for NYCB by a black, male, modern choreographer/MacArthur Fellow/collaborator with ballerina Wendy Whelan look like? But rather what is it supposed to look like?

Many of Abraham's dances, including Pavement, have addressed social justice issues. Photo by Carrie Schneider

Working With Ballet Dancers Will Be New Territory

One might assume Abraham's pairing with NYCB royalty Wendy Whelan for her Restless Creature project would have primed him for this commission. Superficially, that might be the case when it comes to working with ballet dancers.

However, Abraham's work is based in process. "Generally, I take a year to create a piece, and I work very collaboratively," he says. But the NYCB commission allows only three weeks to build the work. When he walks into his first rehearsal this month, he will have no idea if his dancers can handle his movement, since casting was done by observing company class.

He worked closely with Rebecca Krohn (a member of the interim leadership team) to choose the dancers. "Not coming from the ballet world, I didn't know who a lot of the dancers were. Rebecca was super supportive and helpful." She also understood importance of his wanting dancers of color in his piece. "I want to make sure, especially with such a limited time frame, that I am surrounding myself with good energy."

Abraham is known for bringing out the best in dancers he works with. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Will the work be on pointe? "I am going to make this dance and then see, see how they live in it. My goal is to try the material and see what translates onto pointe and what doesn't."

But Abraham is clear: "I have not worked on pointe before and I don't need to."

With limited time, and a complete departure in movement vocabulary, he has to be realistic. "The main thing I say to every dancer I collaborate with is, 'It probably doesn't look good, so let's make sure we do what we can to make it feel good until it looks good—let's get you to a place where what seemed uncomfortable at one point, is now comfortable and really beautiful."

When asked about the lack diversity in dance, Abraham says, "It's great to see us represented in some capacity, but there are so many more black choreographers, women choreographers, choreographers of color who need opportunities, or just the recognition that they are doing these things already."

He does not hold his tongue when suggesting a better approach: "Don't put us all on the same program, or in just February. Do it every season, do it all year long."

Show Comments ()
Dancers Trending
Petra Conti in "L'Altro Casanova," choreographed by Gianluca Schiavoni. Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti.

As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.

Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti

Keep reading... Show less
Giveaways

It's contest time! You could win your choice of Apolla Shocks (up to 100 pairs) for your whole studio! Apolla Performance believes dancers are artists AND athletes—wearing Apolla Shocks helps you be both! Apolla Shocks are footwear for dancers infused with sports science technology while maintaining a dancer's traditions and lines. They provide support, protection and traction that doesn't exist anywhere else for dancers, helping them dance longer and stronger. Apolla wants to get your ENTIRE studio protected and supported in Apolla Shocks! How? Follow these steps:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Dancers want you to vote! Screenshot via Dance for Democracy video.

The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!

But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.

Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
The right tools can keep your body in peak shape. Photo courtesy Hugger Mugger

Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?

We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
via capezio.com

As of today, there are only 13 nights until the spoOoOokiest evening of the year—and just 1 week left, if you're planning to dress up over Halloweekend. Do you have your costume(s) yet?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Eduardo Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with Gaditanía, his first work utilizing multiple dancers. Photo by Paco Lobato, Courtesy Guerrero

With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.

Keep reading... Show less
Playlists
Bobbi Jene Smith, photographed by Jayme Thornton

At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
STEEZY's web player has options for tempo and viewpoint. Photo by Sam Caudle, courtesy STEEZY

Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Paul Taylor choreographed a solo for Alex Clayton in his March 2018 world premiere, Concertiana. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.

Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Scottish Ballet in Cinderella. Photo by Andy Ross via Scottish Ballet

Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.

In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Precious Adams performing Harlequinade pas de deux for English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer competition 2018. Photo by Laurent Liotardo via ballet.org.uk

Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.

It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"This type of creative work is not just about waiting for the duende to arrive, but rather a lot of work with fantastic people," says Rocío Molina of her process for Caída de Cielo, which is documented in the new film IMPULSO. Photo by Javier Fergo, Courtesy Jerez Festival

Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.

Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joseph Gordon, here in "Diamonds," is New York City Ballet's newest principal dancer. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.

Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Instagram tags don't pay the bills. Photo by Andrei Lazarev/Unsplash

Earlier this week, a friend of a friend reached out to me seeking recommendations for a dancer/choreographer to hire. She wanted someone who could perform a solo and talk about their process for an arts-appreciation club. After a few emails back and forth, as I was trying to find out exactly what kind of choreographer she was looking for, it eventually emerged that she was not looking to pay this person.

"We are hoping to find someone who would be willing to participate in exchange for the exposure," she wrote.

Why do people think this is an okay thing to ask for?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Members of RIOULT check out the construction site. Photo by Penelope Gonzalez, Courtesy RIOULT

For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Photo by Ed Flores/MFA candidate Kara Madden rehearses undergraduate dance majors Gregory Taylor and Joe Ogren

In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods
San Francisco Ballet soloist Koto Ishihara stretches in her warm-up boots. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine.

With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.

Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie

via Bloch Inc.

Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
blochworld.com, $48

Rant & Rave
Many of the dancers of 10000 Gestures weren't wearing much clothing when they started climbing on audience members. Photo by Ursula Kaufmann via nyuskirball.org

Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.

A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
This high school dance team's Harry Potter routine has gone viral. Screenshot via ThePac Walden Grove's YouTube channel.

What happens when you mix two really good things together? Sometimes, it can be magical. It's practically guaranteed when one of those elements is the wizarding world of Harry Potter, and the other is—wait for it—dance-team–style hip hop.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Adam McKinney's HaMapah/The Map. Photo by Lafotographeuse, Courtesy McKinney

When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

476,651 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways