Taking Off

March 21, 2011

However you define “emerging,” it takes longer to get there than you’d think. The six dance artists here have made ripples in certain circles. They are now on the cusp of making waves in the larger dance world.

Kyle Abraham
New York City

In high school, before he ever took a formal dance class, Kyle Abraham was a regular on the rave scene in his hometown of Pittsburgh. When he wasn’t practicing cello or taking visual art classes, he went clubbing.

“My friends and I would be the only people dancing all night,” recalls the 33-year-old Abraham, artistic director of Abraham.In.Motion, the New York–based company he launched in 2006. “People thought that doing drugs was how you would stay dancing. But we never touched the drugs. The key was to use the music as a drug.”

Those nights of losing himself on the dance floor—combined with his conservatory education at SUNY Purchase and stints dancing for choreographers like David Dorfman and Bill T. Jones—have given Abraham his unique choreographic touch. In works like his Bessie Award–winning The Radio Show (2010) and his in-progress Live! The Realest MC, he delivers as much pure pleasure as emotional complexity, whether delving into themes of gender, racial identity, and community, or letting his dancers just dance.

While Abraham’s movement palette ranges from Cunningham to capoeira, his work, thematically, remains rooted in home. “Almost everything I make refers to my life growing up in Pittsburgh,” he says. , his first evening-length piece, examines the loss of two voices from his childhood: his father’s, due to Alzheimer’s and aphasia; and his community’s, with the recent shutting down of WAMO 106.7, a much-loved Pittsburgh radio station. The results are both nostalgic and bracingly current, at times surging with the pulse of popular culture, at others zeroing in on an individual’s rich inner life.

Music continues to be a stimulant for Abraham, who was a 2009 “25 to Watch,” and his musicality intoxicating for audiences. He can ride the subtle undercurrents of any song—be it hip hop, indie, classical, or soul—bringing buried rhythms to the surface in swaths of luscious yet intricate movement. His commentary on hip hop culture produces some of the funniest, most astute moments in his work. In The Radio Show, he parodies rap lyrics like “shorty,” “in da club,” and “sippin’ Patrón.” In Live! he does a solo to the voice of an instructional video on how to do a hip roll. “Make it real smooth,” the instructor says. Irony aside, Abraham couldn’t look smoother.

As for the term “emerging,” which can be an ego-bruiser for some, Abraham welcomes it. “I’m always striving to get to some new plateau,” he says. “If you’ve arrived, where are you gonna go next? I want everyone to know what we’re doing. Until our message has reached every single person in the world, I’m still emerging.”

Current projects:
June 5–6, Abraham presents a new work, currently titled The Quiet Dance, at The Joyce. Live! The Realest MC, commissioned by The Kitchen, premieres in December. “In some ways it’s a Pinocchio story, about this character’s quest to be a real boy,” Abraham says. “He thinks being this hip hop MC will make people respect him.” —Siobhan Burke

Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Danspace

Rosie Herrera
Miami, Florida

It’s fitting that Rosie Herrera tosses such diverse life into her dance theater, given all the scenarios the world has tossed onto her lap. From Little Havana feather-and-sequin follies to the dramatics of Latino wakes, her life experiences have flowered into art. “I try to work along those themes that hit me in the gut,” says Herrera.

Her most recent work, Dining Alone, explores issues of aging in part by conjuring up the solitary diners she spied on as a kid at her dad’s Spanish restaurant in Miami. The 28-year-old Cuban American is both a way-out show-woman and hard-nosed cultural detective. Her gravest concerns can stir up a laugh riot while her pop soundtracks send audiences down the breeziest highways, with irony riding shotgun.

“Humor is a powerful weapon,” Herrera attests. “Laughter puts you right in your body. But where you go from there as an artist is a huge responsibility.”

In Herrera’s 2009 breakout piece, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, titters were never far from tremors. Right off, a slick fellow doused his tableside companion with a hose to her face. At the end, a film showed the aquatic dance of survivors jostled off a lifeboat.

And in last year’s Pity Party, co-commissioned by the American Dance Festival, Herrera continued cutting from both satin and sackcloth. From a nightclub setting, a Barbie-doll burlesque, and assaults on a piñata, she wrung the essence of grieving. And, in the process, she came to identify the death of Pina Bausch as an acute personal loss. “If Pina Bausch and Michael Jackson had had a baby, it would have been me!” quips Herrera. Then she adds in a muted tone: “When I first saw Pina’s company, I didn’t just wish I could do that but thought, That’s me up there!” True to her role model, the young choreographer says, “The most important artistic element for me is the atmosphere I’ve created.”

Whirlwind recognition, with appearances two years in a row at ADF, feels vindicating for Herrera. She notes how she “came in through the back door” to earn a BFA from New World School of the Arts while waving cred from the trenches of cabaret and hip hop. Still, she must now meet evolving challenges. “In building a company,” she says, “balancing personalities is as important as the dancing. Dancers sometimes expect a choreographer to be their god.” No easy job, but worth every sacrifice to Herrera, who insists, “It’s all for the magic.”

Next project:
Herrera will return to ADF this summer with Dining Alone, to participate in honoring Charles Reinhart upon his retirement as festival director. She will be among ADF favorites Eiko & Koma, Bill T. Jones, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. —Guillermo Perez

Photo by Sara D. Davis, Courtesy ADF

Justin Peck
New York City

Justin Peck is blessed with a geometric mind: He can conjure formations that shift and click into place with kaleidoscopic logic. But he’s a dancer’s choreographer, too. In Tales of a Chinese Zodiac, which he made for the New York Choreographic Institute’s 2010 summer session, Peck manages to show off every one of his 13 cast members, even as he weaves them into knotty patterns.

Though the New York City Ballet corps member has made just four pieces—the very definition of “emerging”—his gently witty, musically sensitive ballets have already created a buzz. What inspires Peck’s neoclassical works? He cites what he calls the “obvious” influences for an NYCB dancer—Balanchine and Robbins—and he also admires Jirí Kylián’s calligraphic style. But most of all, “I’m a firm believer that dance is inspired by music,” Peck says. “My choreography comes from sound. It’s a fun puzzle: How can I use dance to expose the layering and the undertones in the music?”

Peck, who’s a part-time student at Columbia University, made his first piece in 2009 for the then–brand-new Columbia Ballet Collaborative. “Choreographing was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while, especially once I was dancing professionally and working with a lot of great choreographers,” he says. “CBC offered a great venue and good dancers, so it seemed like the right place to take the plunge.”

Shortly thereafter, he was invited to make a ballet for the fall 2009 session of the New York Choreographic Institute—and his choreographic career “took off from there.”

At the moment, Peck’s biggest challenge is finding the time to make new work. “I’m still dancing with NYCB, and that’s more than a full-time occupation,” he says. He was especially frustrated last spring, when he had to turn down London’s Royal Ballet School when they asked him to make a piece for their end-of-year performance. “It would have been onstage at the Royal Opera House,” he says, sighing. “But my first commitment was to NYCB, and we couldn’t figure out a schedule that worked.”

Never fear: Peck, 23, got a nice big bite from the choreography bug, and plans to continue to make ballets as often as he can—ideally, for NYCB itself. “There’s no other company in the world like this one,” he says. “My colleagues are incredibly quick and smart and passionate about the creation of new work.”

Next projects:
Peck will create works for two summer festivals: the Saratoga ArtsFest at Skidmore College, and the Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival, headed by NYCB principal Benjamin Millepied. —Margaret Fuhrer

Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy NYCB

Kate Corby
Madison, Wisconsin

Kate Corby, 32, invokes Merce Cunningham when asked how music fits into her creative process. “Sound always comes later for me,” she says. “It’s more like the piece’s weather.” She pauses before adding a firmer declaration. “Dance offers so much more than the interpretation of a musical score.”

Recent works like Go do recall Merce’s unpredictable structures, but the skeleton key is theater, with which Corby was involved long before dance entered the picture. Rapid-fire timing and complex exchanges give her ensemble works the zing of a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.

As a sophomore at Beloit College near her suburban Chicago home, Corby “stumbled into a jazz class, of all things. I was hooked,” she remembers. She dumped theater for dance and spent summers at the American Dance Festival assisting co-directors Charles and Stephanie Reinhart. “I helped plan a dinner for Eiko & Koma, did Twyla Tharp’s laundry for a week,” she recalls with a laugh. In the Reinharts’ home, Corby also crossed paths with Pina Bausch, whose deeply psychological tanztheater and “question technique” endure as touchstones. The influence is most keenly felt in Corby’s portrayals of community: Staunch individuals share space with Teutonic frankness, their rituals left unadorned.

With a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where Renée Wadleigh and Tere O’Connor “blew my mind open,” she says, Corby finds that an academic environment best suits her needs as an artist. She founded her company, Kate Corby & Dancers, during a five-year stint as an independent dancer/choreographer in San Francisco, but academia is “a better place for me,” she says. “I feel supported and excited and stimulated.” Since 2008, she’s been an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. UW is behind her “100 percent” in bringing her choreography to a broader audience. Her company appears in New York festivals like Wave Rising and World Dance Alliance, and presents its own programs throughout the Midwest. Corby has worked recently in Florida, Georgia, Hungary, Mexico, and Taiwan.

One of the most vital benefits UW provides is regular access to its performance venues. “It’s hard for me to visualize work in the studio, then translate it to the stage,” she says. “I think that’s because I started out in theater, where most of the process is in the theater itself.” In early rehearsals, Corby imagines how lighting schemes and other theatrical effects will interact with the movement. This is particularly evident in Brute (2010), in which frequent collaborator Emily Miller staggers and trembles inside a ring of piled-up clothing bathed in blood-red light.

After 15 years in the field and international exposure, the occasion for our interview amuses Corby. But, she concedes, “I think I’ll always be emerging. I learn new things about process all the time.”

Current project:
is a product of Corby’s initial research for In Whole or In Part, an ensemble work to premiere in Madison in October and tour to Chicago and New York. Its title comes from the United Nations’ 1948 definition of genocide. —Zachary Whittenburg

Photo by Shomari Montsho, Courtesy Corby

Christopher K. Morgan
Washington, DC

Christopher K. Morgan is a storyteller on the page and stage. For Morgan, 35, writing and choreographing go hand in hand. His choreography ranges from his bold, embodied, and deeply personal solos like The Measure of a Man to his elaborate group work like +1/-1, where dancers create visual labyrinths for the audience to follow and get lost in. His work strikes a personal chord with audiences through his memoir-style of choreography, and yet his abstractions leave plenty of room for imagination.

Morgan was drawn to choreography while studying creative writing at UC Irvine. “Because of my writing, I was looking at dance from a narrative aspect, and that lent itself to me wanting to create work of my own,” he says.

In two companies that Morgan worked with early on in his career—Malashock Dance in San Diego, and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in the greater Washington, DC, area—Morgan was encouraged to contribute to the choreographic vision. “I was able to explore in environments that were low-key and safe.” Morgan also danced with David Gordon in New York. “My sense of process is influenced by him in the way he would often ask the dancers to manipulate his material.” During his time working with Michael Keegan-Dolan of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Morgan learned about risk taking, and “to take a lot of time to investigate an idea.” Performing as a dancer with the Washington National, Houston Grand, and New York City Operas added to his eye for theatricality.

Morgan keeps journals about travels, memories, and conversations, then turns those musings into theatrical expositions. Sometimes his own writing ends up in the piece. In Thirst (2009), his work about greed, overconsumption, and global climate change, a parable is told in multiple languages throughout the evening.

Although Morgan has created more than two dozen works during his choreographic career, it wasn’t until he became a resident choreographer of CityDance Ensemble in Washington, DC, in 2007 that his name began to be known. His position at CityDance gives him the support to create on a cadre of dancers, to put his work forward, and to not be pinned down by labels. “Part of the allure in coming to DC was that I didn’t know where I fit in New York, whether I was uptown or downtown.” But it hasn’t been easy to make his voice heard, even to himself. By working in a less dance-centric community and one so focused on politics, Morgan feels pressure to consider presenters, the diplomatic community, and his board while building new audiences. “All of those things make me want to edit myself. I think the hardest thing is to make sure I follow my dream.”

Next project:
Currency Exchange is a new work partially inspired by Morgan’s recent travels (see “Dance Matters,” page 18), to premiere at American University April 8 and 9. —Emily Macel Theys

Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, Courtesy CityDance

Peter Chu
Las Vegas

Peter Chu’s This Thought exploded across the stage of the Dance Teacher Summit last August. His six dancers thrust themselves into wild spine undulations and drastic stops and starts. They seemed to not just arrive at stillness, but screech to a halt. One person would drag another by holding their hands over the ears. Even the slow parts felt ominous. When one soft finger-touch ended the dance, the audience roared. The occasion was the Capezio A.C.E. Award Competition for choreography—and This Thought won the prize.

Chu, 32, grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where he trained as a gymnast and cheerleader. However, his mother was his music teacher, and he says he was “born into” music and dance. At the local Dussich Dance Studio, he got a taste for making dances, which he developed further at Juilliard. He was exposed to Ohad Naharin and other choreographers there, but what really made the difference was his composition teacher, choreographer Pat Catterson. “She understood my background,” he says, referring to both his concert dance and commercial dance experience. “We had great talks; she really inspired me and helped push me.” His senior year he created a 27-minute piece and won the Hector Zaraspe Prize for Choreography.

Since his graduation in 2002, he’s worked on a music video for Christina Perri, danced with BJM Danse (Ballets Jazz de Montréal), performed in Celine Dion’s A New Day… in Las Vegas, and won a New Works Festival award at Perry-Mansfield. He has created pieces for the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, San Diego Dance Theater, Southern Utah University, and Monsters of Hip Hop.

A riveting performer, Chu has been dancing with Crystal Pite for eight years, and her extreme movement has clearly influenced him. (She, in turn, has been influenced by William Forsythe.) “Her work is so alive,” says Chu. “What I love about her is she allows us freedom. It’s her vision and she has the final say, but when we’re exploring in the studio she gives us the freedom to improvise. I just love how we are in the studio. We have fun. We laugh. We grow and learn from each other.”

Two years ago Chu formed his own group, chuthis. Because of his touring schedule with Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM, he has to fit his own choreography into his breaks from touring.

Next project:
A group work to preview in Las Vegas and then premiere in New York in July. “I guess you would call it contemporary dance with katunk, a funky flavor of dance.” About the process, he says, “It is a loud and beautiful collection of resistance, fear, and uncertainty. Thoughts and sensations break up into liquid-like energy that expands, contracts, undulates, and vibrates. A mechanical beast searches for a precise and particular end.” No doubt! —Wendy Perron

Photo Courtesy Chu