How Kyle Abraham Feels About Being NYCB's First Black Choreographer in More Than a Decade
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."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
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?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
As more states legalize cannabis, it seems the sales pitch for cannabidiol—or CBD—gets broader and broader. A quick internet search turns up claims that CBD helps with pain, depression, acne, arthritis, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress, epilepsy and cancer. But the marketplace is unregulated, which makes it tricky to find out what CBD actually does.
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.