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."
It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
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What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks: