‘A Black Love Sitcom Dance’: Kyle Abraham’s D’Angelo Moves

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In a section of Kyle Abraham’s latest evening-length work, “An Untitled Love,” four women sit on a pink plastic-covered couch, a patterned rug at their feet, gesturing in cool, flirtatious unison: crossing their ankles, rolling their shoulders, flicking a hand into the air. Every so often, they erupt in chatter, or saunter over to other dancers strolling by. The steady, sultry groove of D’Angelo’s “One Mo’Gin” animates the scene.

Since founding his New York-based company — now called A.I.M by Kyle Abraham — in 2006, Abraham, 44, has often made work about the struggles, past and present, of being Black in the United States. His propulsive, deeply musical dances, for his own troupe and larger companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, have confronted issues of police brutality, mass incarceration and other legacies of slavery. For “An Untitled Love,” which will have its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday, he envisioned a different mood.

“I wanted this work to focus on joy and celebration and love,” he said in a recent video interview from Santa Barbara, Calif., where A.I.M was on tour. “I wanted us to be able to have fun.” Set to songs by D’Angelo — Abraham calls himself a Day 1 D’Angelo fan — the show emerged from a desire not to ignore painful realities, he said, but “to highlight the beauty in our culture, the way we love and love on each other.”

Contemplating love, Abraham thought of his parents and their social circles in his hometown, Pittsburgh: gatherings in living rooms, at church, at the barbershop and hair salon. His mother was a public-school teacher, guidance counselor and principal; his father was a social worker and coached sports teams. Both died when Abraham was in his 30s, and memories of their relationship, rippling out to recollections of friends and extended family, infuse the work. Vivid colors and assorted patterns add to the warmth onstage, courtesy of Karen Young’s costumes, Dan Scully’s lighting and set design, and backdrops by the illustrator Joe Buckingham.

Catherine Kirk, a dancer with A.I.M since 2013, described the show, in a phone interview, as “a Black love sitcom dance — it’s fun, it’s outgoing, it’s feel-good.” Rehearsing to D’Angelo’s music for months, even years (the premiere, originally scheduled for spring 2020, was postponed because of the pandemic), has reminded her of her reasons, at heart, for dancing. “I find myself falling more into why I love to dance,” she said, “why dance is spiritual and how it’s a language among humans, not just technique and institutions. I think his music helps to reflect that.”

When the pandemic struck, Abraham resisted rehearsing on Zoom (“I wanted to avoid it at all costs”). Instead, each week, a company member would suggest a viewing or reading related to “An Untitled Love,” and the group would convene online to discuss. Their long and winding conversations, Abraham said, gave him “a sense of power and purpose” in a challenging time.

This week is a busy one for Abraham, with his extravagant, iconoclastic “The Runaway,” created in 2018 for New York City Ballet, back onstage at Lincoln Center, Tuesday through Thursday. He is also choreographing his first one-act work for the Royal Ballet (he made a shorter piece for the company last year), to a contemporary classical score by Ryan Lott; he’ll return to London to add finishing touches before the March 24 premiere. When 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 evening, Abraham reflected on his inspirations for “An Untitled Love” and the ups and downs of his ballet company projects. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What are some of the memories that inspired “An Untitled Love”?

There’s so much, really. I’m one of those kids that grew up at my mother’s side. The adult parties — for whatever reason I was allowed to be there, playing cards with the adults and everything. The banter that we play with in the work, some of that was a nod to my relationship with my mom and our humor. We were thick as thieves, the two of us.

The styling I was interested in, the atmosphere, also connects to my childhood and being with my parents, like the plastic cover on the couch — we had one of those — or this kind of textural or pattern clash. 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 a bit. All of that is in the work.

Were you thinking about your parents’ relationship?

I was definitely thinking about my parents and their love. When my dad had aphasia, one of the only things he could say was my mother’s name, or tell her that he loved her, out of nowhere. Even when we weren’t super close, when I was a little kid — we got closer later — he would always have me help him pick out her gifts. To this day, I know the flower guy from Ludwig Flowers on the north side of Pittsburgh, because just on a whim my dad would send my mom flowers, all the time.

You’ve also talked about this show as a love letter to D’Angelo’s music. What do you appreciate about his work?

There’s so much to love. There’s funk, there’s depth, there’s a sense of a community or a cultural moment that people can connect to, hearing 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 it.

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 connections with it to be watered down by the science of creating a work.

Does the music still feel fresh to you?

Super fresh. Some things are even heightened. You know how when you’re out at a place with a jukebox, you can tell who’s picked what song by their reaction when the song comes on? They’re kind of looking around. There’s one song in this show — when it drops, I look around. I’m like, “Anybody? Anybody? Is this your jam too?”

Which one?

“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 on, I heard someone go “Mmm, all right!” [Laughs.] I was like, “Yes, it’s working!”

While “An Untitled Love” is in Brooklyn, “The Runaway” is back onstage 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 did watch a rehearsal on Zoom recently, and I got really emotional, in a good way. The last section people see, that wasn’t originally the last section — I made it maybe in the last two rehearsals. We had a whole other section, a whole other song we used. I said to the dancers, “I could go in 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.”

That support is so special. They could have phoned it in and been like, “Listen, we don’t have time to learn more choreography.” But they wanted it to be its best. That really gets me all choked up.

What are you working on for the Royal Ballet?

This is the first one-act ballet they’ve commissioned by a Black choreographer, for the opera house main stage. [Robert Garland, of Dance Theater of Harlem, made a work for the Royal’s smaller Linbury Studio Theater in 2004.] I tell my students about that, and they get excited. But it actually makes me really sad. Like, however long the company has been around, how is this possible?

I think about someone like Ulysses Dove, and the work he did like “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” for Royal Swedish Ballet, or works he made for New York City Ballet. Had he not lost his life way too soon [to complications from AIDS, in 1996], he ideally would have been over there before me. It would have been so wonderful to be able to talk with him and learn from him. I study his Charlie Rose interviews and any footage I can find online.

Is your piece a tribute to him?

I don’t know if it’s going to read in the choreography. But I was talking to one of my closest friends, the choreographer Darrell Moultrie, and he said, “Whatever you do, if the intention was there to honor Mr. Dove, it will come through.” So, I’m just trying to sit with that and not be overwhelmed with getting a certain type of narrative to read. I’m in a place now where I want to make this work its absolute best, while honoring Ulysses Dove and his legacy as best I can.

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