Context Notes: Kyle Abraham
Dancing Identity and Freedom: On Kyle Abraham’s Dances and The Upcoming Season at New York Live Arts
By Carl Paris
My Take: In Kyle Abraham’s world, shifting narratives of love, pain, anger, violence and politics emerge and dissolve almost seamlessly across hip-hop-inflected body ripples, queer club-culture, provocative theatrical representations and technically-stunning modern dance. The diverse dancing bodies luxuriate in the demanding variety of Abraham’s movement, yet are capable of reminding us of people we know, desire or avoid. Sometimes oblique in the telling, these narratives invite us to feel (and question) how we see others and ourselves across assumptions and understandings of life, culture and identity.
As much into Lil Wayne as J.S. Bach, this thirty-seven year old, New York-based choreographer is quick to tell you that his work is informed in no small way by the combination of his experiences growing up “a gay black male” within hip-hop and black culture in his native Pittsburgh and his education in classical music and the visual arts.* Thus, leaning toward the postmodern and experimental, Abraham strives for an interdisciplinary approach, which integrates visual and sonic elements with his choreographic language.
With such qualities in evidence, Abraham premieres two distinct programs in the New York Live Arts’ 2014 Season: The Watershed, an evening-length work and When the Wolves Came In, a suite of three dances. (I attended relatively early rehearsals; therefore, I did not see full costuming and scenery.) The new works explore themes around freedom and are inspired by Max Roach’s protest music of the Sixties, historical milestones in black American civil rights and the twentieth anniversary of the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. In exploring these themes, Abraham builds on some choreographic strategies that have worked well for him (as in The Radio Show and Pavement). One such strategy is a counterintuitive layering of dance sequences with pedestrian interactions, creating, in my mind, interesting overlapping scenarios of people on the street. Another strategy is Abraham’s gorgeous solo appearances and interactions with the dancers, which simultaneously illuminate the personal intricacies of his movement and drive the choreographic narrative.
As I watch rehearsals, it becomes clear that the idea of freedom is in what the dancing says about it. Abraham has said that he chooses his dancers not for type, but for the compatibility of their personalities and talents. This season, although the male body continues to claim many of the meaty roles, a strong female presence allows for compelling interactions between men and women, which, combined with Abraham’s signature male-to-male situations, complicates questions of power and agency like: Who leads? Who follows? How far will you go to love me? Do I touch you, should I kiss you in front of everyone? In this context, notions of freedom are both slippery and metaphorical; most intelligible, I argue, in the oppositional situations Abraham creates through his eclectic sampling of music, the expressive dancing bodies (black, white, Asian, short, tall—ten including Abraham, all beautiful dancers) and the social and cultural values we associate with them.
We might see this in The Watershed, for example, where Abraham juxtaposes intense changes of music, sounds, vocalizations and dancing bodies to probe connections between violence and freedom. A repeated phrase of a woman running and a man stopping her confirms that such connections are persistently there, yet mutable in their interpretation. Similarly, the first of the three dances of When The Wolves Came In, also titled “When The Wolves Came In,” features the classical choral music (by Nico Muhly) that helps set up a kind of sarcastic formalism in need of a challenge. Visual gestures, such as the six dancers taking off their big crazy beehive wigs and getting down to dancing business offer humorous and edgy ways to think about how symbols interact with human agency.
From there, “The Gettin’,” consisting of five sections, nudges us toward a more sensual groove, notably bolstered by the live collaboration of jazz artist Robert Glasper and his trio. And Abraham leaves it up to us to construct what freedom means when bodies compete against one another or when a woman’s singing/screaming voice provides the backdrop for a black male and a white male alternating between intimate interaction and defiantly standing their ground. “Hallowed” rounds out that groove with a trio, set to spirituals and gospel songs and an inventive interspersing of wacking, voguing, popping and locking with modern dance, designed, I imagine, to explore linkages between black modes of worship and affirming self through the dancing.
Together, these new works reflect Abraham’s concern with connecting visual and kinetic power and excavating critical humanistic stories. As such, they offer interesting new perspectives on ways in which dance, identity, gender and race intersect. Clearly, this season marks a pivotal moment in Kyle Abraham’s spectacular ascendance and he is aware of the pressures. No doubt, his talent and hard work will prove rewarding.
* All biographical material is based on interviews with Kyle Abraham.
Director’s Note: Yasuko Yokoshi
This dance is about a bell.
The Buddhist temples in Japan usually have a small hut which hangs a very large bell that comes along with a heavy wooden striker called “shimoku.” The monks use the shimoku to strike the bell for various religious occasions throughout the year. Also the temple visitors strike the bell as an act of prayer.
Every year, on December 31st, right before the new year arrives, the bells at Buddhist temples across Japan are struck by the monks 108 times, clearing the 108 earthly temptations to bring about universal enlightenment.
The story Kyoganoko Musume Dojyoji is based on Japanese Buddihist teaching. The lyrics that accompany the dance are metaphysical like an underground poetry.
I have no idea what it means or why it’s this way or why that way. Words are ambiguous and dance is more ambiguous than words.
In Japanese traditional world you just learn by copying the teacher and you don’t ask questions to the teacher and ambiguity stays ambiguous and that is just the way it is.
In BELL I am going to perform a solo which is created for a man whose character is woman and she dances as a man called “Shira-byoshi.”
I am not a traditional dancer and I am not a man and I am not a Kabuki actor. If you wish to see the real Kabuki please travel to Japan. I hope you will wish that after seeing BELL.
– Yasuko Yokoshi
Yasuko Yokoshi was born in Hiroshima, Japan and lives and works in New York City. She has received commissions for directing and choreographing from P.S.122, Danspace Project, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Théâtre de la Ville (France), Festival a/d Werf (Holland), Festival Sommer SIZEN (Austria), and Frascati Theater (Holland). Awards include a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, 2008 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Fellowship, a 2007 BAXTen Award, and two New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards (2003 and 2006). Yokoshi is a curatorial adviser at the Kitchen and also serves on the board of directors of Movement Research.
Inaugural Resident Comissioned Artist World Premiere
Mar 16, 19 – 23 at 7:30pm
Context Notes: Resident Commissioned Artist Yasuko Yokoshi
Western choreographers’ attitude toward Eastern dance and theater began as an adjunct to colonialism; they viewed unfamiliar cultures with an appropriative eye. Nineteenth-century ballet choreographers thrilled audiences with visions of a fictitious Near East populated by daring harem women and the rajahs and caliphs who desired them. The American Ruth St. Denis, in solos like her 1913 “Japanese” Omika, sought to ally herself her with cultures in which dance could be associated with spiritualism, rather than with the high-kickers of American vaudeville.
Yasuko Yokoshi, born in Hiroshima, Japan, has resided in New York for some time. As a postmodern strategist who has performed with a number of vanguard choreographers, she has, over the last decade, made work that treats contemporary American culture and traditional Japanese culture as separate strands to be honored in themselves. But she also braids them together in ways that occasionally go against tradition. In her 2003 solo, Shuffle, she embodied with slippery cleverness the Japanese divinities Izanagi and his sister-wife Izanami (whose tale parallels that of Orpheus and Eurydice), as well as members of her own family who perished by drowning. Male and female, mythic and contemporary, Japanese and American, history and pop culture, comedy and tragedy, bereavement and demonic possession wrangled within her.
2003 was also the year Yokoshi first went to Japan to study with Masumi Seyama VI, a disciple of Kanjyuro Fujima VI, who developed the Su-odori style, a refinement within the Kabuki dance theater tradition that calls for an emphasis on simplicity and subtlety. Three pieces that Yokoshi has made since then follow a path influenced by her ongoing explorations of her cultural heritage. In her mesmerizing what we when we, which was shown at Danspace St. Marks Church in 2006, reticence and formality compressed emotion the way a corked bottle holds effervescent fluid. Shake it too hard and what’s inside may explode. In this case, the five performers wore plain Japanese kimonos and footwear, and, as in Su-odori, no wigs or fancy makeup. Yokoshi set refined classical dancing against everyday behavior, such as lighting a cigarette, pouring a cup of sake, or arranging a pillow. The dancers moved slowly and paused often. A subtle change of costume transformed a male performer into a female character—reminding us that in classical Kabuki, all the roles are played by men, while at the same time presenting the actuality of two males kissing.
what we when we, however, wasn’t rooted in a Japanese drama but in Raymond Carver’s spare short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Little happens in Carver’s tale; two couples sit together, getting slowly drunk on gin, and talk about love and death and recollect drastic events and thoughts. And in Yokoshi’s staging, you sensed possibly violent urges simmering underneath the ceremoniousness and the small, significant gestures and glances.
Four years later, Yokoshi developed a more complex layering of East and West entitled Tyler Tyler. Three performers trained by Seyama joined New York dancers Kayvon Pourazar and Julie Alexander. Seyama choreographed some of the Su-odori dances and coached the American performers (as she had done for what we when we). This time, Yokoshi deconstructed elements of The Tale of the Heike, a famous 12th-century epic about battling clans, and Tyler Tyler juxtaposed controlled behavior to wildness, and classical Japanese tradition to contemporary freedom of movement and speech. Nor was it only the Japanese performers who danced with restraint; Pourazar and Alexander also took on elements of the older style. This stunning work also revealed that the Su-odori approach to Kabuki shares something with postmodern dance. The ceremonious behavior in the former both distances and intensifies the extreme emotions expressed in the dramas, while in much contemporary dance, feelings may shape movements and structures that in turn express emotions without the performer acting them out.
In BELL, Yokoshi has embarked on a contemporary weave of two cultural artifacts: the 1863 Kabuki dance play Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji and the 1841 French ballet Giselle. In both, beauty plays a part in distancing us from the real world. Both have heroines driven mad by unrequited love who reappear as spirits. Giselle, however, condemned in death to become a man-killing wili by night, manages to save the man who deceived her, stalling for time until the church bell rings out to signal the dawn. For Kyohime of Kyoganoko Musume Dojoji the bell is more sinister; long ago, transformed into a serpent, she destroyed the Buddhist priest who spurned her love by wrapping herself around the huge temple bell he was hiding beneath and incinerating him with her fiery breath. Her ghost is not as forgiving as Giselle’s.
Yokoshi isn’t telling the ballet’s story; she hopes that glimpses of familiar moments, classical steps, tutus, and some of Giselle’s music will help us understand what lies beneath Dojoji’s complexities and the ambiguities that she as a choreographer is enamored of and which she compounds. When Yokoshi dances as Kiyohime’s spirit, for instance, she is taking on a role traditionally played by a male onnagata performer; “he” in turn is playing the ghost disguised as a traveling dancing girl, Hanako, who is performing a solo that portrays a man. And The Bell not only juxtaposes ballet and Kabuki; in the end, the emotions of the Dojoji drama—with its emphasis on “ravishing” (Yokoshi’s word) theatrical effects— are abstracted and distilled down to their essence in a slow, unadorned solo in Su-odori style performed by Kayo Seyama. Boundaries don’t topple; they become porous.
Deborah Jowitt began to dance professionally in 1953, to show her own choreography in 1962, and to write a regular dance column for The Village Voice in 1967. Her articles on dance have appeared in numerous journals, as well as in anthologies and exhibition catalogues. She has published two collections: Dance Beat (1977) and The Dance in Mind(1985). A third book, Time and the Dancing Image (William Morrow; paperback, University of California Press), won the de la Torre Bueno Prize for 1988. She also edited and wrote the introduction for Meredith Monk (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) as well as the introductions for the revised edition of Jill Johnston’s Marmalade Me and for José Limón’sAn Unfinished Memoir (both from Wesleyan University Press). Her critical/historical writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Reinventing Dance in the 1960s, (Sally Banes, ed.) and Moving History/Dancing Cultures (Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, eds.). Simon and Schuster published her most recent book, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, in 2004. She has lectured, taught, and/or conducted workshops at institutions and conferences in the United States and abroad and has been on the faculty of the Dance Department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts since 1975— in the past two decades as a Master Teacher. A founding member of the Dance Critics Association, she served at various times as its treasurer, newsletter editor, and co-chairman. Dance Theater Workshop awarded her a “Bessie” in 1985 for her contributions to dance criticism, and the American Dance Guild honored her in 1991. In 1998, she received an “Ernie” — an award reserved for dance’s “unsung heroes” — from Dance/USA. In 2001, she was The Congress on Research in Dance’s honoree for her “Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research.” She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002.
Kyle Abraham Q&A with New York Live Arts
Kyle Abraham, New York Live Arts’ 2012-2014 Resident Commissioned Artist (RCA), took some time recently to sit down and talk with Danielle Bias, Director of Marketing & Public Relations here at Live Arts. This evening, his much awaited commission for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Another Night, will premiere. Read on to see what he has to say about art-making, the RCA Award, and more.
DB: Dance was not your first love, so to speak, in the arts. Could you talk about your path to dance?
KA: Growing up in Pittsburgh, I spent a lot of time studying music — playing cello and [taking] private piano classes; as well as taking many visual arts classes. So I grew up deeply involved with visual arts and music.
Dance was something that came years later. While in high school one of my closest friends was very active performing in high school musicals, and she encouraged me to audition. I think from there I got the dance bug.
DB: Were there dance works or dancemakers that really influenced you in the beginning, as you were forming your ideas about dance?
That first year dancing, I was exposed to a collaboration between my favorite singer, Prince, and the Joffrey Ballet. Just seeing popular music with classical dance taught me a lot about collaboration. I also saw the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company present Still/Here that year. They came into my high school and did a lecture demonstration and the performance. Bill T. also read from Last Night On Earth. I saw him, I saw his company and I just idolized that whole experience.
I look to Bill T. as someone who is not only an eloquent and gifted speaker, but he was able to translate that in a dance form and create something that was about community, about love and about life in a way that, in my first year of dancing, I didn’t even know was possible. So, when I chose colleges I chose Purchase College, because so many of the dancers on the alumni sheet had danced for Bill T.’s company. Shortly after college I was lucky enough to dance with his company before moving back to Pittsburgh to spend two years with my family while my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
DB: Your experiences growing up in Pittsburgh often appear, in some way, in the works you create, including the newest work. Can you tell us more about that piece?
KA: A lot of my work is centered around my life in Pittsburgh…In Another Night, [my commissioned work] premiering on the Ailey Company on December 5th, it is a celebration of the rich jazz history of Pittsburgh, looking at the height of entertainment and creativity with jazz legends such as Billy Strayhorn or Art Blakey. We use Art Blakey’s version of A Night in Tunisia in the work, hence the name, Another Night.
DB: Considering how active you have been creating new works recently, what does this RCA Award mean to you?
KA: When I think about the Resident Commissioned Artist Program, I think about how much support I’m going to have as an artist. During my time here I’m going to be creating a more extensive repertory of shorter works while still thinking about what it is about evening-length works that really hold their ground for me…so over the next two years I’m just going to be creating and generating work with those two things in mind, while also hoping to collaborate with music artists and visual artists alike.
DB: What advice would you offer to other artists?
KA: Stay focused on who you are and what it is you want to say…I try my hardest to stay focused. I’m still trying to figure out [a] balance to also create a social life. It’s great to see artists that I love who’ve figured out that balance where they’re still able to be really successful in the field, but have a partner, have a baby, be able to laugh.
I [also] think about how much gratitude I have for [New York Live Arts Artistic Director] Carla Peterson and all that she’s done for me as an artist and for other artists as well. I remember when I first applied for Fresh Tracks and didn’t get it, I went up to her and I asked her if she had any feedback. I remember her actually taking the time to say, “Let me think about it for a second.” And then she invited me to her office, she had notes and we talked about it. It’s that kind of feedback that you need as an artist to be able to figure out what people are seeing and what they’re not seeing in your message.