American choreographer Kyle Abraham has been making waves on the other side of the pond for a while now. He made his Festival debut in 2022 with An Untitled Love, performed by his company A.I.M, and returns this summer with the piece Are You in Your Feelings? as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Programme 1. Read on to find out more about his roots, his influences and his career so far.
His hometown has been a life-long inspiration.
Kyle Abraham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1977. Abraham speaks a lot about his hometown pride and even took his dancers on a tour of the neighbourhood where he grew up when they were creating An Untitled Love. Part of the motivation behind the work was to tell the rich history of the city, particularly the history of its Black residents, which has been largely unspoken or ignored. Abraham has said ‘So much of the work I have made over the years is, in a lot of ways, rooted in a street or many streets in Pittsburgh’. The city appears again and again throughout much of Abraham’s work, referenced in sets, sounds and costumes. The pride is very much reciprocated; in 2017, Pittsburgh declared 10 November ‘Kyle Abraham Day’.
He didn’t start formal dance training until he was 17.
Despite loving dance, Abraham didn’t consider it a viable career until he saw Joffrey Ballet perform in 1993 in Pittsburgh. They performed a programme called Billboards to the music of Prince, Abraham’s favourite musician. Connections with musicians have since become a common theme throughout his work – but more on that later. He was then encouraged by his friends to audition for a school musical, which led to a summer scholarship and him enrolling at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school.
He established his company, Abraham In Motion (A.I.M), in 2006.
The year he graduated from university, Abraham established A.I.M with the mission to ‘create a body of dance-based work that is galvanized by Black culture and history’. Abraham’s choreography does not shy away from difficult topics and has been praised for ‘combining truth and beauty’. In addition to his work for his own company, Abraham has choreographed for the New York City Ballet, the National Ballet of Cuba, The Royal Ballet and of course, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Many of his works respond directly to issues facing the Black community, including police brutality, the prison system and gang violence. The dancers of A.I.M. also created A.I.MforChange, a social organisation fighting for the betterment of the Black community, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Abraham has also spoken about the pressure on Black artists to create work about pain. Referring to the creation of An Untitled Love as part of a ‘healing chapter’, he sees the piece as a romantic comedy, celebrating Black joy and focusing on ‘the way we love and love on each other’. Are You in Your Feelings? has been referred to as ‘season two’ of this work, inhabiting the same thematic and structural universe.
His family is a big influence on his work.
Another significant influence on Abraham’s practice is his parents and his childhood. He's described himself as ‘one of those kids that grew up at my mother’s side... We were thick as thieves, the two of us.’ An Untitled Love pulled directly on aspects of his childhood home, down to the plastic cover on the sofa on stage and choreography inspired by his mother’s colleagues: ‘I was thinking of my mom and her friends just sitting on the couch talking. A lot of them worked for the Pittsburgh public school system, so they’d come over on a Saturday and hang out and gossip’.
Music was Abraham’s first love.
Abraham's initial forays into choreography were motivated by a desire to highlight his favourite artists. Several of his works are soundtracked exclusively by one musician, with inspirations including D’Angelo, fellow Pittsburgh-native Art Blakey and Nina Simone. Are You in Your Feelings? is scored by a thematic mixtape of songs that ‘narrate the ups and downs of getting together and breaking up; of making a commitment to oneself or being unbothered by love.’ Some of his pieces juxtapose music from across cultures and centuries: The Pavement has a score combining music by J. C. Bach, Jacques Brel and Sam Cooke among others, while Requiem blends Mozart with Afrofuturism.
He describes his choreographic practice as ‘postmodern gumbo’.
Abraham’s practice blends many different dance techniques and genres. He blends his love of hip hop and his experience with rave culture with his classical training and found movement into what he describes as a ‘movement vocabulary’. Unsurprisingly, as so much of his work is inspired by his own memories and culture, much of his choreography is also inspired by the everyday: ‘I play with gesture in different ways, and with found movement –movement that’s in everyday culture’. He is also very detail-oriented, focussing on the most minute of movements, ‘even just the way you touch someone on the shoulder... what people remember the most are those details’.
Abraham explores gender and sexuality throughout his work.
Abraham talks frequently about how his identity as a Black gay man shapes his work. He has spoken about how early experiences showed him the importance of representation, particularly seeing two men kiss on MTV in Christina Aguilera’s music video for ‘Beautiful’ (2002). Looking back on his college years, he’s said: ‘I used to go around campus conducting interviews about gender and sexuality and then I’d make a dance about it... I made a lot of same-sex duets … it was definitely purposeful to have two same-sex people interacting.’ It was around this time that he also discovered the work of Ulysses Dove, a pioneering queer choreographer, which showed Abraham the power his work could have.
This LGBTQ+ representation has continued throughout his work, depicting not just same-sex romantic relationships but also queer community. His 2021 work The Weathering for The Royal Ballet was both political and personal, reflecting on the loss the queer community faced during the AIDS epidemic. In more recent works, notably An Untitled Love and Are You In Your Feelings?, queerness is woven throughout, with same-sex romantic partnerships placed alongside straight ones without comment, as much a part of the romantic comedy as any other pairing.
Abraham wants to create work that is both personal and universal.
Although his work is deeply personal, what motivates Abraham is dance's ability to connect with people universally: ‘My work is about reaching communities and finding our differences and our similarities. That’s what the world is; it’s that conversation.’ He has spoken about how everyone brings their own experiences to a performance and how he is there to facilitate this as a choreographer. In his own words, ‘a choreographer’s job is the same as a host at a dinner party. You want to make sure everyone’s having a good time.’
Are You in Your Feelings is performed as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Programme 1 from Wednesday 23 – Friday 25 August. Get excited by listening to the playlist in time for summer.