As his new ballet opens at the Royal Opera House in London, American choreographer Kyle Abraham talks about transforming the archaic, elitist world of classical arts
African American choreographer Kyle Abraham is revolutionising the world of ballet, one plié at a time. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with his plethora of shape-shifting accolades: from creating solo works for American Ballet Theatre Principal dancers Misty Copeland, Calvin Royal III and Colin Trevorrow’s 2017 feature film, The Book of Henry; to choreographing Beyoncé’s December 2020 British Vogue cover shoot. He also worked on productions for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Royal Ballet, where his dance Optional Family: A Divertissement reintroduced the magic of performing arts to post-lockdown London. Abraham’s talents have taken him far beyond the barriers within the classical arts industry and its age-old elitism. Now, he’s taking it a step further with his debut at Royal Opera House – the pinnacle of success for any classical act.
The Weathering debuts tonight (March 24) with a cast of 11 dancers, making it Abraham’s biggest production to date. Though he refrains from thematising his work, this ballet is a moving ode to loss, love and acceptance, and pays homage to the lives and creative talents lost to the 1980s Aids epidemic. “Ulysses Dove, who is someone I’m very much inspired by, was on my mind when I was creating this,” Abraham tells AnOther, referencing the legendary African American choreographer who passed away in 1996 due to an Aids-related illness. “We share a lot of interesting connections to spaces that we’ve both had our work in. He made work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Freedom City Ballet, which are things I have been fortunate enough to do, so I was thinking about the way his life was cut short. A lot of the programmes that I was watching around that time focused on the subject matter of Aids too, and it was just heavy on my heart. So when I was coming up with concepts for the show, I was thinking about so many people that we’ve lost in the art world and in this world in general.”
Abraham wants this show to be viewed as an abstract narrative. “I just want people to really connect with it in some way. It’s a challenge to make a non-narrative work, or any kind of work with an abstract narrative when things aren’t really linear and it’s dance,” he says. “I think a lot of people go to a dance and think you have to find a story in it, and I don’t think that’s the reality. I think you can enjoy it in the same way that you can appreciate art without there being a description next to the painting.”
He was first approached during the pandemic by Kevin O’Hare – director of the Royal Opera House – with an invitation to create a pas de trois (a ballet dance between three people) to familiarise him with the company. He then returned in the autumn of 2021 to start working on The Weathering. “I think Kevin initially wanted to pair me with a popular music artist, maybe even with hip-hop artists, because the last ballet that I made was staged for New York City Ballet and it was set to Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, and James Blake mixed with classical music, so there was interest in that. But when I got there, I wanted something a little more traditional using contemporary classical music, especially because I was working with an ensemble [cast of 11 dancers].”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Abraham grew up on classical music. He played the cello, the piano and the French horn throughout his childhood and was also in a church choir. His transition into ballet came when a company named the Joffrey Ballet came to his hometown to perform a show set to the music of his idol, Prince. “I only went because I was like, there’s an event that’s playing only Prince’s music, I need to be there,” he recalls. “I was a huge hip-hop and rave kid, that was my world. I went to the show with one of my friends and everyone saw how excited I was from it which kind of opened my eyes up to other possibilities that I was so unaware of.” He then auditioned for a high school musical, where he was cast in a Caribbean show. “It was the 90s and I had my hair in long twists,” he laughs. The Civic Light Opera Academy and Performing Arts school in Pittsburgh then gave him a scholarship to take dance classes in his senior year, where he studied jazz technique and ballet technique. “Those teachers were just really supportive, and it helps that one of them was a big Prince fan too,” he says. “I always felt supported by the teachers and by my parents too.”
The whitewashed nature of classical arts was never something that phased Abraham, and it did not discourage him from pursuing a career in ballet. Instead, it made him want it even more. “My parents, who are no longer with us, never made me feel like I couldn’t do something,” he explains. “Regardless of what my experience might have been like in grade school – where I had a teacher call me by the N-word and a fellow student spit on me and call me the N-word – I was always led to imagine and dream about what I could be. That’s one of the most important things for young people of colour. You have to have people around you that make you feel empowered and keep you aware of all the things that you can do.”
This is what motivated Abraham to start his dance company, AIM. Focused on creating a body of dance-based work that is galvanised by Black culture and history, he initially launched it in 2005 during his time in grad school, though it wasn’t until 2010 that AIM put on their first show and immediately started touring. “It was amazing. We felt like we had just been shot out of a canon and it’s a little similar this year too. There have been so many works, that even in the pandemic, we’ve found a way to make them seen by audiences. It’s so important for us, especially because there definitely aren’t that many choreographers and artists of colour who have this opportunity.”
Later this year, AIM will take their show An Untitled Love – a ballet inspired by and set to the sounds of R&B god D’Angelo – to Paris and London. The ballet premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 23 and even had D’Angelo himself in the audience on one of its opening nights. “It’s really exciting to see where things are going,” says Abraham. “The dancers at my company are all on a salary, 52 weeks a year with healthcare and retirement plans. I’m just so excited and grateful that we can provide these things and support and nurture dancers from all different backgrounds. That’s what it’s really about.”
The Weathering premieres at the Royal Opera House in London on March 24 and runs until 7 April 2022.