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.
THE INSIDER GUIDE TO CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE (abridged)
You’ve thoroughly read the cultural previews published by The New York Times, New York Magazine, and Time Out, and snapped up tickets for all of the downtown shows before they sell out. But is your vocab up to snuff? In preparation for the fall performance blitz, brush up on the necessary lingo with our handy cheat sheet to guarantee (even a neophyte) instant insider status:
1. Modern dance: developed in the early 1900s as a rebellion against ballet (Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham), and rebelled against in turn–fifty years later–by the post-modernists.
2. Post-modern: a panacea label for all work that is unconventional, regardless of its origin. Common traits: all of the terms below. For dance and performance generally, the hallmark of the evolution of post-modernism was the Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960s-70s.
3. Pedestrian movement: every day, functional actions, such as walking, running, lying down, crawling, or sitting. Also known as “task-oriented movement”. [Litmus test: could a non-trained person do this in the living room?]
4. Performance art: combines aspects of theater, dance, music, poetry, political or social activism and visual art (think Fluxus or Marina Abramovic). Aims to be provocative and frequently structured as a performance installation (see below). Really came into being during the 1960s.
5. Performance installation: crossover into the visual arts world, usually takes place someplace other than a traditional theater, and lasts for many hours. Inexplicably involves nudity 95% of the time.
6. Experimental: challenging the status quo. Useful in describing any performance that revels in shock-value or lacks recognizable elements or artistic cohesion (note: no relation to the orderly scientific process learned in high school science).
7. Contemporary: typically a mash-up of classical and modern, with a few post-modern flourishes. Overused by ballet companies and European groups in an effort to distance themselves from “classical”.
8. Fourth wall: the invisible barrier between stage and audience that allows performers to pretend the audience doesn’t exist. “Breaking the fourth wall” is a trope in post-modern performance, used with varying degrees of success.
9. Non-narrative: no clear story, or at least not one you can follow.
10. Multi-disciplinary: a blanket term for performances that include video, visual art, or interactive technology along with dance or theater. Often misused or aspirational.
11. Performative: the act of performing. The genius of this term is that any action can be declared “performative,” simply by naming it as such, regardless of setting. A term beloved by the post-modern crowd. [Yes, drinking coffee can be performative as long as you call it that.]
12. Movement score: a loose structure for improvisational movement, guided by specific images or ideas that are unlikely to be apparent to the audience.
13. Intention: the idea or motivation behind an action. Crucial in transforming a pedestrian action into a performative one (kind of like taking communion).
14. Kinesthetic: focused on the body and physical movement. Redundant when used to describe dance for obvious reasons, but it sounds fancy.
15. Innovative: new ideas; original or creative. A positive sounding catch-all for anything you don’t understand. What was once “avant-garde” morphed into “cutting-edge,” and is now trumpeted as “innovative.”
Did we miss a vocab word? Tell us in the comments section.
Dancers possess beauty and strength, qualities luxury retailers are eager to affiliate with their products.
Last year, Lexus worked with ballerina Tamara Rojo on a luxury car commercial, harnessing the classic associations of grace and power.
Modern dance brings a sense of creativity and individuality to the mix, which Pilobolus Dance Theatre has leveraged with an entire “creative services” division that’s done commercials for a number of global giants, from Bloomingdale’s to Hyundai.
In a similar vein, Puma’s 2008 campaign with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company made an exuberant pitch for upscale sport shoes. [Not surprisingly, creativity took a back seat to consistency when it came to filming the commercial: Associate Artistic Director Janet Wong remembers the multi-day shoot, edited into a tight 30 second ad, requiring “many, many, many, many takes” from different angles.]
Fashion label Rag & Bone is the latest to tap the heady potential of dance, with a video for its 2014 fall/winter line featuring choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham. Unlike most ads that focus on the athletic side of dance (jump! kick! turn!–cue ABT ballerina Misty Copeland in Under Armor’s new campaign), Rag & Bones’ atmospheric montage cuts between the dancers and the Brooklyn cityscape for a softer sell.
Meet our 2014-15 Context Notes Writers
Jess Barbegallo and Paul David Young are New York Live Arts’ 2014-2015 commissioned writers, contributing ‘Context Notes’ for each season artist and for the New York Live Arts Blog. Knowledgeable about the practice of art making, they both work as performance makers and writers. We’ve invited them to write, less because they know every artist’s work intimately – in some cases they don’t – but because they like to frame questions, spark discussion, and find meaning for themselves and others within the experience of seeing live work. Like our audience members, each writer is deeply curious about what contemporary artists are trying to say. Their writings–commissioned works in their own right–aim to spur a deeper dialogue with our artists, the content of their work, and each work’s relationship to a larger cultural environment.
THE BESSIE AWARDS ANNOUNCE 2013-2014 NOMINEES
The 30th Annual Bessie Awards nominees were announced last week, and several New York Live Arts productions from the past season got a nod.
John Jasperse – Within Between
Donna Uchizono – State of Heads
Julia Hausermann in Disabled Theater by Jerome Bel and Theater HORA
Rebecca Serrell-Cyr in Fire Underground by Donna Uchizono
Stuart Singer in Within Between by John Jasperse
Outstanding Visual Design
Thomas Dunn for New Work for the Desert by Beth Gill
The 2014 Outstanding Emerging Choreographer Award was presented at the press conference to two female choreographers: Jen Rosenblit (2009 Fresh Tracks Artist, 2011 Studio Series Artist, 2012 mainstage artist) was recognized for a Natural dance, performed at The Kitchen, for “a confident voice investigating the fluidity of identity, the pulse of time, and the nature of what it is to dance;” Jessica Lang was recognized for the elegant works created for her newly formed company of dancers at the Joyce Theater in her transition from freelance choreographer to artistic director.
The 30th Annual Bessie Awards will be held Monday, October 20, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Call for Context Notes Writers
Each season New York Live Arts (Live Arts) commissions two (2) writers to produce written pieces known as “Context Notes” to accompany each show on the season. Context Notes are published in Live Arts programs and are intended to frame questions, spark discussion, and explore/expand the experience of seeing work on the Live Arts stage. This year, Live Arts seeks to include new voices and diverse perspectives by issuing an open call for writers.
Interested applicants must be engaged in an active writing practice and demonstrate a compelling history of publication (whether in print or online, self-published or by existing media outlets). Applicants must have an avid interest in live art, and be engaged with the form as writers, scholars, makers, curators, and/or educators. Applicants will be considered for the quality of their writing, ability to engage readers, and professionalism. Applicants interested in using new media and technology to supplement and/or interface with their writing are strongly encouraged to apply.
Each writer will cover approximately five (5) shows across the season, writing a short 600-word piece on the artist and work being presented. The notes are not required to provide any specific information about the artist or their work. Aside from editing for factual errors, the works are not edited for content by the artists whose work is being discussed
Additionally, each writer will produce two (2) blog posts for the Live Arts blog, on topics of their choice that relate to Live Arts, the performing arts community in New York and abroad, and current events. Context Notes writers will receive an honorarium of $700, as well as a complimentary ticket to each Live Arts presentation on the 2014/2015 season for which they are writing. Samples of past context notes can be found here on the New York Live Arts blog.
Please send your application to firstname.lastname@example.org as a single PDF file. Please include, in order:
Statement of Intent (no more than one page).
Why is participation in this program of interest to you? What do you hope to bring to Live Arts’ Context Notes program? What approach(es) do you use to engage your audience?
Resume of relevant experience (no more than two pages).
Please include experience relevant to writing in a professional capacity, including past publication, education, and research, as well as other non-writing experience that informs your work.
2 samples of your writing on the topic of a specific performance or artist creating body-based work. Samples must be work that has been published in the public domain within the past 4 years.
Applications are due by 5pm on Monday July 7th, 2014. No late applications will be accepted.
Please direct all questions to Jaamil Kosoko, Producing Associate, Humanities and Engagement at email@example.com. No phone calls please.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company Performs for Bard Prison Initiative Students
“The world-renowned Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, in residence at Bard College this spring, gave a site-specific performance at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, on May 7.”
Read the full article here>
Dance and Democracy: Overcoming Adversity in the Arts post-Arab Spring
It is Monday May 26th, 2014 and at 9 o’clock this morning Egyptians began to cast ballots to decide their next president. The election is largely symbolic – there are only two candidates, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the presumed winner, and Hamdeen Sabahi, and the joke, delivered with a good humored cynicism, is that the only two options are the President and the other guy – and many Egyptians, most of them young, feel disgusted and disenchanted with what, to them, is a farce. Others hope that at least Sisi will bring stability, and hopefully tourism, back to a country whose recent history has seen a revolution, a military coup, and four different presidents in as many years. When you speak about Egypt with most people this is what they are familiar with: the Arab Spring, a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for 40 years, the only leader an entire generation of Egyptians had known.
What most people don’t know is that Egypt also has a richly developed, consummate, and vibrant contemporary artistic community who are working, in spite of political instability and uncertainty, to create work that reflects an Egypt that is not limited or defined by political turmoil, but that is full of generosity and hope and kindness and humor and curiosity and thoughtfulness and aspiration and deep and abiding care; an Egypt that is steeped in its history, its four thousand year old pyramids and eight hundred year old mosques, but that is also fervently and definitively here now; an Egypt whose air smells like incense and exhaust and bread baking and meat roasting and garbage, where rooftop bars overlook the tranquil waters of the Nile and the majesty of the city’s skyline, where the secret hip bohemian intelligentsia of Cairo gather at the Greek Club or a hookah bar or a falafel restaurant to have conversations about privilege and art and history and shared struggle and hope for the future.
I was honored and privileged to be invited by Ezzat Ismail Ezzat, an Egyptian dancer, choreographer, producer, and administrator, to travel to Cairo earlier this month to work with a group of Egyptian dance artists on establishing parameters for basic artists’ rights. I went without expectations, having never been to Egypt before and knowing nothing about the contemporary dance community there.
I was overwhelmed.
There were some who feared for my safety, a fear that I never felt fully myself. Certainly there had been the revolution, which was largely peaceful with the exception of Mubarak’s hired thugs and some scattered run-ins with the police, and then there had been a brutal military crackdown on protesters after Mohammed Morsi was deposed, and there have since been isolated incidents of insurgency and minor acts of terrorism, but nothing that amounted to anything more dangerous than walking through Prospect Park after hours. And in any case it is especially during times of difficulty that people who are working under trying and even hostile circumstances to make a place for art and art makers need to be supported. I had been heartened, emboldened, and continually inspired by Ezzat’s energy, passion, and dedication to working on substantive issues pertaining to artists’ rights and services during conversations leading up to the trip and felt strongly that if he was willing to do this work in spite of the challenges he was facing then the least I could do was show up. But I arrived to an Egypt that was calm, if bustling; a city that welcomed me with generous arms opened wide, far from a violent hotbed of political turmoil.
The contemporary dance community in Cairo is small – I imagine I met most of them in the short time I was there – but fiercely committed to one another. There is a great deal of love there.
A note on my host: Ezzat Ismail Ezzat is one of a singular breed of human beings, an extraordinarily selfless, committed, and capable individual. He graduated from university with a degree in architecture and a desire to dance. Upon surveying the scene and realizing that there were no dedicated dance spaces he took it upon himself to design and build his own. When that was done he proceeded to begin producing Contemporary Dance Night, a festival of Egyptian contemporary dance, because there were few opportunities for Egyptian dance artists to present their work. Now that CDN is well into it’s fourth year he is taking on a third issue: that of addressing a deep need for trained dance teachers with a program called SEEDS that brings teachers from all over the world to train budding Egyptian dance teachers in anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, movement analysis, etc. Ezzat is a giant and I was humbled by his deep sensitivity, his compassion, and the humility that imbues everything he does.
We spent three days in conversation with Egyptian dancers and choreographers discussing, in detail, all the issues surrounding dancers’ rights in the rehearsal process, during performances, and on tour. We talked about the challenges of working in the Egyptian context, where there are only three foundations that fund contemporary dance, where there are only six festivals that commission and produce work, and where there are no meaningful or enforced labor rights in general. We got into the weeds about how many exceptions there would be to any guideline or stipulation that we set in stone. The whole conversation was incredibly thoughtful, nuanced, and respectful and it resulted in a narrative document outlining a simple proposal: that clarity, openness, and communication, in the context of a community of goodwill, could lead to a stronger, more vibrant arts community in Egypt, the important thing being that expectations and the details of an artistic commitment be outlined clearly before the beginning of a working relationship in order to avoid unintentional exploitation.
Nine days is hardly enough time to address the root of the issues we had convened to talk about, but often it can be useful just to get stakeholders in a room talking to one another. It was the beginning of a much larger and more complex conversation that will hopefully continue in the coming days, months, and years. Many of the challenges faced by Egyptian dance artists are not unique to them; the concerns addressed in our workshops have been echoed by many dancemakers in New York: limited access to affordable dance spaces, the scarcity of resources and funding, a lack of affordable training for professional dancers, and the widespread instances of dancers working for very little or for free. These are issues that have prompted similar convenings in New York, resulting in things like the Dancers’ Forum Compact and The Brooklyn Commune Project’s report The View From Here, both of which were discussed during the workshops in Cairo.
We have a ways to go; the road is not short, nor is it easy, but this work is important and we have to believe that it can lead to change. It is the existence of people like Ezzat who believe enough to fly someone halfway across the world for one week to have these conversations, and of the people who showed up for a week’s worth of four hour workshops to participate in these conversations who give me hope.
It is their existence that makes me believe that things can get better, that they must get better, that they will get better.
A draft of the document that resulted from the week’s conversations can be read here.
The workshops were sponsored by the American Embassy in Cairo in partnership with Ezzat Ezzat Contemporary Dance Studio.
Alexander Leslie Thompson is a freelance dancer, choreographer, musician, administrator, and transplant to New York City by way of his hometown in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves on the Dance/NYC Junior Committee and Doug Varone’s Junior Board and works as the Associate Artist Program Manager at New York Live Arts striving to find ways to provide much needed services to dance artists in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter at @lexanderthomp.