Kyle Abraham has been busy. In early November, the Pittsburgh-born choreographer was named the 2012-2014 New York Live Arts Resident, and his company, Abraham.In.Motion, premiered Abraham’s Pavement at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Then, over Thanksgiving, he flew to Dublin, where he finished creating a piece for a modern dance ensemble. Now, Abraham, a darling of the downtown scene, heads uptown with his first commission from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Another Night, a work for 10 dancers set to Art Blakey’s 1960 interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia.
In between rehearsals, meetings, and packing a bag for another trip (this time to Los Angeles, where he was named a 2012 USA Fellow), Abraham met with Ryan Wenzel, the Rail’s dance editor, to discuss his current projects and an upcoming collaboration born from serendipity.
Ryan Wenzel (Rail): How did Another Night come about?
Kyle Abraham: Ailey Artistic Director Robert Battle, whom I’ve known for a long time, invited me to choreograph for the company. He called me when I was standing in line at the post office. I was really interested in live drums at the time, so I started thinking about Art Blakey, who’s also from Pittsburgh. I was really drawn to his approach to A Night in Tunisia. It got me thinking about the vibrancy of Pittsburgh at that time. Pavement takes place in a similar time, but it has highs and lows, whereas Another Night is all about the highs of that community. Its a fun dance. There’s a lot of energy.
Rail: How was working with the Ailey company different from working with your own dancers?
Abraham: Every hour, the Ailey dancers have to take five-minute breaks. With my company, the workday tends to last from noon to 6, with an hour for lunch. We just go. I worked with the Ailey dancers for a week, and then we stopped for two weeks while they learned other repertory. I'm such a bully: I wanted to get the whole thing done that first week. The Ailey dancers also wanted certain details that I usually don't address so soon. They wanted to know specifics about spacing, and that's something that I usually don't deal with until I'm in the theater. I was impressed by the dancers and their questions. People might think the Ailey dancers wouldn't feel like they needed to get my style right, but they really did want to.
Rail: How would you describe that style?
Abraham: I call it a postmodern gumbo. It's a mix of postmodern vocabularies, combined with my experience with rave culture and hip-hop music. But I'm never making just a hip-hop dance.
Rail: Which other choreographers inspire you right now?
Abraham: Faye Driscoll. She’s fearless. She’s always unapologetic and brilliant. Ralph Lemon is my idol. He has his hands in every part of the creative process. I love that he can be such a creative force without being constrained by the responsibilities that come with all of the work that he's doing. Bebe Miller, because her work is so personal. It's magical how she can put things together in a way that’s seamless. David Dorfman. His work is honest and comes from a socially conscious place. Merce Cunningham too. I learned his Duets in college, and there are moments inspired by it in Another Night. At one point, for example, two dancers begin in a leap and end in a curve. The way it's used with the music is different from Cunningham, obviously, but it's definitely inspired by him. The costumes are also color-blocked in a way that’s similar to Duets.
Rail: You have plans to collaborate with New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan on a new piece. How did that transpire?
Abraham: At the Fall for Dance festival in 2007, I went onstage right before Wendy. The summer before last, we were both performing at another event, and I went on before her again. Then it just so happened that I went on right after her at the Fire Island Dance Festival. We joked about how we kept performing around the same time. She seemed to dig what I do and asked if I’d consider making a work for her. I laughed: Who wouldn’t? On the way back from Fire Island, we sat together on the bus talking about random things. I'm always happy to talk to dance people and not need to talk about dance.
Rail: Your recently announced New York Live Arts residency is a big deal: $280,000 in direct support, a guaranteed salary for two years. How will the residency change your career and your life?
Abraham: I hope it will make life more stable. Choreographers can be depressed people. They use dance as a way of getting these feelings out, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. Having health care coverage, I’ll be able to take care of myself: I can go talk to someone when I need to. The residency gives me the resources to deal with the ups and downs of what this career can be. Choreographers can be so worried about getting that one good review. I don’t want to deal with all that.
Rail: What exactly were you up to in Ireland?
Abraham: I made 30-minute dance called Outsider for John Scott's Irish Modern Dance Theatre. I’m dancing on the program. The Ailey premiere is December 5, and then I fly to Ireland the following night. I come back to New York on December 8, and the next day I go back to Ireland again for that premiere on December 10.
Rail: Do you ever sleep?
Abraham: [Laughs] I try. Sometimes I’m happy if I don’t sleep much. My dad used to wake up every morning at 6 a.m. whether he had to work or not. When I wake up early, sometimes I feel like a grown man.