“A Black Love Sitcom Dance”: Kyle Abraham’s D’Angelo Moves
In a section of Kyle Abraham’s latest one-night work, “An Untitled Love,” four women sit on a sofa covered in pink plastic, a patterned rug at their feet, gesturing cool and flirtatious unison : crossing their ankles, rolling their shoulders, raising their hands in the air. From time to time, they break out into small talk, or wander over to other dancers who are strolling. The steady, sultry groove of D’Angelo’s “One Mo’Gin” enlivens the scene.
Since founding his New York-based company – now called AIM by Kyle Abraham – in 2006, Abraham, 44, has often worked on the struggles, past and present, of being Black in the United States. His propulsive and deeply musical dances, for his own troupe and larger companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, faced issues of police brutality, mass incarceration and other legacies of slavery. For “An Untitled Love,” which will premiere in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, he imagined a different vibe.
“I wanted this work to focus on joy, celebration and love,” he said in a recent video interview from Santa Barbara, Calif., where AIM was touring. “I wanted us to have fun.” Set to songs by D’Angelo — Abraham calls himself a fan of Day 1 D’Angelo — the show was born out of a desire not to ignore painful realities, he said, but “to highlight the beauty of our culture, the way we love and love about each other.”
Contemplating love, Abraham thought of his parents and their social circles in his hometown of Pittsburgh: gatherings in salons, at church, at the barbershop, and at the barbershop. His mother was a public school teacher, guidance counselor, and principal; his father was a social worker and coach of sports teams. Both died when Abraham was in his thirties, and memories of their relationship, rippling through memories of friends and extended family, permeate the work. Bright colors and matching patterns add warmth on stage, thanks to costumes by Karen Young, lighting and set design by Joe Scully, and sets by illustrator Joe Buckingham.
Catherine Kirk, a dancer with AIM since 2013, described the show, in a phone interview, as “a black love sitcom dance – it’s fun, it’s outgoing, it’s good.” Rehearsing D’Angelo’s music for months, if not years (the premiere, originally scheduled for spring 2020, was postponed due to the pandemic), reminded him of his reasons, deep down, for dancing. “I find myself understanding why I love to dance,” she said, “why dance is spiritual and how it’s a language among humans, not just a technique and institutions. I think his music helps to reject that.
When the pandemic hit, Abraham resisted rehearsals on Zoom (“I wanted to avoid it at all costs”). Instead, each week someone from the company would suggest a viewing or reading related to “An Untitled Love,” and the group would meet online to discuss. Their long and winding conversations, Abraham said, gave him “a sense of power and purpose” in a difficult time.
It’s been a busy week for Abraham, with his extravagant and iconoclastic “The Runaway,” created in 2018 for New York City Ballet, back on stage at Lincoln Center Tuesday through Thursday. He is also choreographing his first one-act piece for the Royal Ballet (he did a shorter piece for the company last year), to a contemporary classical score by Ryan Lott; he will return to London to put the finishing touches ahead of the March 24 premiere. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California.
From his hotel room on a Friday night, Abraham reflected on his inspirations for “An Untitled Love” and the highs and lows of his ballet company plans. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What are some of the memories that inspired “An Untitled Love”?
There are so many, really. I am one of those children who grew up alongside my mother. Adult parties – for some reason I was allowed to be there, playing cards with the adults and stuff. The jokes we play with at work were partly a nod to my relationship with my mother and our humor. We were thick as thieves, the two of us.
The style I was interested in, the atmosphere, is also related to my childhood and my life with my parents, like the plastic cover on the sofa – we had one – or this kind of clash of textures or patterns. I thought of my mom and her friends sitting on the couch talking. Many of them worked for the Pittsburgh public school system, so they would come on a Saturday and hang out and chat a bit. It’s all in the work.
Were you thinking about your parents’ relationship?
I was definitely thinking of my parents and their love. When my dad was aphasic, one of the only things he could say was my mom’s name, or tell her he loved her, out of nowhere. Even when we weren’t very close, when I was little – we got closer later – he always asked me to help him choose his gifts. To this day, I know the flower vendor from Ludwig Flowers, north of Pittsburgh, because, on a whim, my dad used to send my mom flowers all the time.
You also referred to this show as a love letter to D’Angelo’s music. What do you like about his work?
There is so much to love. There’s funk, there’s depth, there’s a sense of community or a cultural moment that people can connect to, hear the Brown Sugar album or the Voodoo album for the first time, or for the 100th time because you didn’t want to stop playing this.
It was tricky too, because I didn’t want to hear the music so much that I never wanted to hear it again. I didn’t want my connection to her to be watered down by the science of creating a work.
Does the music still sound fresh to you?
Super fresh. Some things are even reinforced. You know how when you’re in a place with a jukebox, you can tell who picked which song by their reaction when the song starts? They look around. There’s a song on this show – when it drops, I look around. I’m like, “Anyone? Anyone? Is this your jam too?”
“Lady.” We just had our show in Seattle last night – the company’s fourth time performing there. Seattle audiences have always been super quiet. But last night, when “Lady” came out, I heard someone say, “Mmm, okay!” [Laughs.] I was like, “Yeah, it works!”
While “An Untitled Love” is in Brooklyn, “The Runaway” is back on stage at New York City Ballet. Have you seen it since the premiere a few years ago?
No, but I’ll be there this month. I watched a rehearsal on Zoom recently, and I got very emotional, in a good way. The last section that people see, it wasn’t originally the last section — I may have done it in the last two rehearsals. We had a whole different section, a whole different song that we were using. I said to the dancers, “I could go this other direction, or we could just stick with what we’ve been working on. And they were like, “Just keep trying with what you want to explore.”
This support is so special. They could have phoned and said, “Look, we don’t have time to learn any more choreography. But they wanted it to be the best. It really chokes me.
What are you working on for the Royal Ballet?
It’s the first one-act ballet they’ve commissioned from a black choreographer, for the opera’s main stage. [Robert Garland, of Dance Theater of Harlem, made a work for the Royal’s smaller Lindbury Studio Theater in 2004.] I tell my students about it and they get carried away. But actually, it makes me really sad. For example, however long the company has existed, how is that possible?
I think of someone like Ulysses Dove, and the work he did like “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” for the Royal Swedish Ballet, or works he did for New York City Ballet. Hadn’t he lost his life way too soon [to complications from AIDS, in 1996], he would ideally have been there before me. It would have been so wonderful to be able to talk with him and learn from him. I’m studying his interviews with Charlie Rose and any footage I can find online.
Does your piece pay homage to him?
I don’t know if it will be read in the choreography. But I was talking to one of my closest friends, choreographer Darrell Moultrie, and he said, ‘Whatever you do, if the intention was there to honor Mr. Dove, it will come to fruition. So I’m just trying to sit with that and not get overwhelmed by reading a certain kind of narrative. I am now in a place where I want to make this work his absolute best, while honoring Ulysses Dove and his legacy as best I can.