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Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s new work centers on Black love and the music of D’Angelo

‘I wanted to make something where we saw ourselves being loved’

While Kyle Abraham is a major figure in the world of concert dance, he also captivates audiences less familiar with live art for the stage. Maybe it is because he uses a multitude of movement styles mixed in with his classical dance training. Maybe it is due to the music that scores his works, where you may hear a playlist that ranges from Nico Muhly to Ye.

Either way, he knows how to get down. This week, his company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham will do just that, with the New York premiere of An Untitled Love, an evening-length dance made to the sweet grooves of R&B legend D’Angelo.

Abraham grew up in Pittsburgh and brings the influences of his family and community with him as he’s won prestigious awards and appointments, from a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant ( 2013 ) to the Princess Grace Statue Award ( 2018 ) to an endowed professorship at the University of Southern California ( 2021 ). Along the way, he has choreographed for Misty Copeland, received international commissions from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to the Royal Ballet in London, and built his own troupe of 10 dancers that boasts a 52-week contract and health insurance (rare offerings in professional dance).

Kyle Abraham (center), seen here at a rehearsal for An Untitled Love, has created a work that centers on Black love and self-love.

Laura Diffenderfer

Abraham describes An Untitled Love as “the purest Kyle Abraham dance there has ever been,” meaning most of the dance steps originated in his body. “I’m so familiar with the music of D’Angelo that it really was me living out my biggest fantasy, just living this music that I love so much.” Embodying that feeling, Abraham has created a work that centers on Black love and self-love. Following this week’s performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), An Untitled Love continues on tour to Dallas, Boston, Washington, Houston, Atlanta, Paris and the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts.

The Undefeated caught up with Abraham in the days before his BAM premiere.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your first touch with D’Angelo?

I’m a legit D’Angelo fan, like I’m a day one. His first album [1995’s Brown Sugar] came out my first year of college. D’Angelo is one of the artists that really represents the music I grew up with. In my work The Radio Show [2010], it used the FM station idea where you’re getting contemporary R&B and hip-hop on one station and then another is playing old soul and classic R&B. And to me, that love of both of those stations is really what D’Angelo’s music is about.

Some of the songs from the later albums have featured Redman and he would do stuff with Q-Tip, so he’s very much in that world. But he’s also covering Smokey Robinson, and doing a duet with Erykah Badu for the High School High soundtrack, right? His music has always been my kind of soundtrack. I still play a lot of his albums just to get up in the morning and get moving.

So did the 14-year gap between Voodoo and Black Messiah kill you?

No, no. I’m not one of those people. I think when music is good, you can always listen to it. I don’t need the new. I mean, he hasn’t had an album in what, like seven years now or something? I don’t think I ever stopped playing his albums, Voodoo in particular. And it’s great if he wants to keep making new music, but I’m fine with what’s out already. He’s given us a lot. I’m very grateful. 

In the past, you have mixed and matched musical artists in scoring your work. When you were conceiving of An Untitled Love, when did you know this would be danced solely to D’Angelo?

It was pretty immediate. I had this idea of making this work focused on ideas of Black love — and self-love really — and I think that’s ultimately what led me to think about D’Angelo right away. I don’t think there was ever any other artist that was a part of that conversation for me.

When thinking about the songs in his catalog, I wanted to focus on the songs that focus on love. There’s one song from the first album that’s all expletives in its title [‘S—, Damn, Motherf—er’] and I didn’t want to use it because I thought it wasn’t going to work well for what I’m trying to say or do. I decided not to be superconcerned with people who weren’t familiar with his music. My attitude was, ‘If you don’t know how bangin’ these hits are, that’s all on you.’

There’s such a groove to his work that it’s been interesting to consider how to create that same kind of ebb and flow in a dance program. There’s so much I’m playing with in the program to set up a certain type of build. I didn’t want it to be like a yo-yo because I think that’s exhausting for an audience. Of course, there are other songs that I would’ve loved to use, that he gave me the rights to use. But you know, there’s other players involved in the music rights — you have record labels who were never in the studio and weren’t part of the creation that sometimes want to have a voice for whatever reason. But the music that I chose was both to honor D’Angelo and honor his audiences. There’s one moment in particular that — no spoilers here — really brings out the audience response from people who are legit D’Angelo fans.

Have the audiences been vocal? Concert dance audiences can be so quiet and hard to shake out of their theater manners.

Yes. We premiered the work in Chicago, which was a beautiful thing to be able to do. We have three dancers from Chicago in the company and I just love that city. But to be sitting in the audience on opening night and hear the reaction to some of those moments, as someone who’s directed the work, was really exciting. And just recently we performed the show in Seattle, where we have performed four times previous. A lot of times we don’t hear a single peep in the audience, like nothing until the show is over and there are standing ovations and amazing applause. But during the show, you have no idea if people are liking it or if they’re with you or not. This time, people were clapping after every section and I could hear them laughing at the funny moments. There aren’t many POC [people of color] in that audience or community, so seeing that they still connected with it makes me feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, we really did this.’

What place does the past have in this work … growing up in Pittsburgh, your parents, your community?

It’s very present. The barbershop that I went to growing up; the salon that I used to go to with my mom … I would just sit there with her sometimes and hang out, because where else was she gonna put me. A lot of that is in the work. It’s the walk to the corner store to get penny candy and it’s the ignorant conversation that people would have at the bus stop looking at somebody crossing the street and making some comment.

Did your parents listen to D’Angelo?

My dad used to tell me when the ‘Untitled [How Does It Feel]’ video would come on because he knew how much I loved that song. D’Angelo is half-naked, or maybe more, but that’s not what it was like for me … the song was so gut-wrenching and honorable. I just loved it and would stare at the screen. I mean, he is a very beautiful man, but it wasn’t about the objectification of him, just the music. My parents were both still alive when those first two albums came out and we used to vibe out.

Because of the pandemic, this piece was in development for a long time.

I had already started thinking about it before we got into the studio, writing all the grants and that kind of stuff. We started working on it in 2018, with a premiere that was set for June 2020. I gave myself two years to complete it. We did a preview performance in December of 2019 and then I left to go teach at the university for the winter. I was coming back to NYC in March to put final touches on things and then the pandemic happened.

Did you keep working on it during the pandemic?

We were very close to being show-ready. I decided to use the time to have more conversations with the dancers. It’s expensive to rent space, so you have to use it for dancing instead of talking, but talking is a really big part of my process. I want to be able to sit down with the dancers as collaborators and see how they feel about what we’re making. So we started doing a thing on Fridays where we would get together and have a discussion about a movie or a TV episode or a reading someone had suggested. It was informative for a lot of the character development.

And then we had to hire two dancers during the pandemic. I wound up hiring through a private audition process over Zoom. We would send the dancers some material, and in some cases we would give feedback and think about how they approached the feedback. We also interviewed them just to see how they were as human beings.

And was familiarity with D’Angelo a question in the interview?

Honestly, I feel like I could probably tell from how people were dancing if they were or not. [Laughter] Martell Ruffin — he’s the newest company member — I asked him and the people that were auditioning with him to videotape themselves doing a groove. When I think about the influence of D’Angelo’s music, there’s so many textures to it, the funk is there, that vulnerability is there. And if someone could give me that on video, like Martell did, then I was like, ‘OK, we got that person. We found it.’

It’s interesting that this project started before the pandemic, because the themes of Black love and self-love seem to be part of the zeitgeist of this moment, informed by quarantine life and the Black Lives Matter protests.

There’s something always eerie to me about how these things happen. It didn’t begin in the project narrative that I wrote in 2018 about those ideals, but it has always been present in my work.

One thing that is interesting to me as a maker is that you’re not always fully aware of how the things you are creating will finally weigh into your personal life. Or if it is the opposite — if what you’re making is addressing something purposefully that is going on in your life. I was interested in talking about Black love, and in some ways sneaking into an audience, in the form of the performance, ideas around self-love.

When you developed the work, did you feel like there was a void of Black love?

Yeah, I did. And I do. Right before we started working in the studio, I started talking to younger folks about representation. I would ask them about famous Black couples or movies that made them think or consider ideas of Black love. They only really had like two, or maybe three: Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Will and Jada, and Barack and Michelle. I wanted to make something where we saw ourselves being loved and showcased the way we love. This work was happening well before these last two years and a lot of people waking up for the first time. Because so much of my previous work has addressed the injustices we face and the untimely deaths of so many Black and brown bodies, I wanted to make a work that celebrated us.

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.