NEW YORK — It’s noon on a mid-April Monday, and Kyle Abraham is worried about money. Not because he hasn’t filed his taxes yet (though he hasn’t) but because he’s the artistic director of his own nascent dance company, and one of his dancers hasn’t shown up.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the choreographer says. “I have six hours of studio time, but I’m down a dancer.” As he talks he has his feet crossed in third position, he’s slowly going up on his toes, arms arced above his head. He’s stressed, but he’s smiling.
Abraham is learning the hard way what it’s like to lead a dance company, which is making its Washington debut this weekend. There is no easy way.
He approaches his work — in this case creating a new evening-length piece — with the seriousness of a veteran artist, but a relaxed ease that’s rare in the self-serious world of modern dance. So today, even though his paid understudy has gone AWOL, Abraham will press on. He’ll just dance the no-show’s parts himself.
At a boyish 34, Abraham can still do that. But he’s getting to the point where he’d rather not, calling himself an “old man” in front of his 20-something dancers. It’s not as much about physical durability as it is about multitasking. Today’s agenda at the Joyce Soho, a venerated (if rundown) dance rehearsal space, calls for Abraham to review 60 minutes of material, teach his dancers a new section, host a guest reporter, and sit down with the Joyce Foundation video crew to film his work for an education video.
“Where’s my hat?” he says, rummaging through his dance bag. “I was going to wear my hat today.”
Like Mark Morris and his scarf, or Peter Martins with his geeky IT glasses, Abraham knows he’s going to need an accessory to make it through this busy day of artistic directing. He pulls a plaid newsboy cap from a bag of notebooks, scarves and toe separators, and secures it on his head.
“There,” he says. “Now we can get started.”
Abraham is at work on his third evening-length piece, tentatively called “Pavement.” The dance is inspired by the 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood,” but set to baroque music, including Vivaldi arias and Bach’s violin partitas. He’s interested in juxtapositions, and “The Radio Show,” a 2010 work his company will be performing next weekend at Dance Place, is no exception. The piece loosely traces two narratives: the demise of two African American radio stations in Abraham’s home town of Pittsburgh, and his father’s descent into dementia. The soundscape is a mix of radio call-in shows, original house music and popular nostalgic tunes by singers such as Aretha Franklin.
The movement is equally bifurcated, indebted to hip-hop in the looseness of the shoulders and the casual jumps, but delivered with balletic precision. One of his signature moves, for example, is a little sideways jumps he calls the Jigga-Basque. (“A little Jay Z reference.”) The movement is playful in places, but luscious overall, as if with each arm gesture the dancers are parting a substance that’s thicker than air.
“It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. Structurally, choreographically, it’s the first of its kind,” said Chalvar Monteiro, one of the dancers who will be performing with “Abraham.in.Motion” this weekend. Monteiro, a SUNY Purchase graduate who left Elisa Monte’s decades-old company to focus on dancing for Abraham, is quite forthcoming about why. “He has a new, fresh take on the human experience and how that translates into dancing,” Monteiro said. “It was hard for me to chose, but the factor that kept me here is that I love Kyle and that he always makes a point to make works that are socially relevant, but also timeless.”
That’s high praise for a choreographer whose company repertory is essentially just two works. Abraham spent his 20s dancing for the likes of Bill T. Jones and David Dorfman. In 2008, he started taking more guest artist and temporary teaching gigs, with the goal of not only making his own living, but funding his own company. “Radio Show,” which was partially funded by the Heinz Endowments, premiered in Pittsburgh, and debuted in New York a month later, in the middle of a snowstorm. Abraham remembers looking out at the audience, and thinking it was a decent house for Danspace Project. The next day, the New York Times ran a positive review. “After that review, it was so sold out. I started the show, and I just started crying,” Abraham said. “Now, me crying is just part of the show. It was overwhelming, that support. I was thinking, ‘Wow. People came to see my work.’”
They’ve been coming ever since, to venues across the country, plus government-funded tours in Ecuador and Jordan. This year, a fellowship from the Joyce Foundation entitles him to 100 hours of free studio time, but with so many touring opportunities, it’s actually gotten tough to squeeze those hours in, making it all the more important that his dancers — who do not have written contracts — show up for rehearsal. “Pavement” is scheduled to premiere November, and it’s already been booked, sight unseen, by arts presenters across the country, including Dance Place, the Northeast District venue that presents mostly local dance companies, but also saves a few weekends for up-and-coming touring artists.
When A.I.M. arrives in D.C. on Wednesday, Dance Place founding director Carla Perlo will be meeting Abraham for the first time, even though she’s already committed to present his company for three years.
“Kyle and I have a very 21st-century relationship,” Perlo said. “We e-mail constantly, but I feel like I already know him. He’s very warm and friendly. He’s got good management (Pentacle), a great Web site, and he sends high-quality samples of his work.”
Through the National Performance Network, a nonprofit organization that matches artists with presenters, Dance Place was able to join the venerable Bates Dance Festival in co-comissioning “Live! The Realest MC.” That work, which looks at black gay identity through the Pinocchio story, and a puppet’s quest to be real, premiered last year, although Dance Place audiences aren’t scheduled to see it until 2014. In 2013, A.I.M. will bring “Pavement” to Washington.
The multiple bookings are possible, Perlo stresses, because that Abraham has been unusually savvy when it comes to seeking grant funding and promoting his work.
“To succeed as a young choreographer, you have to be very organized from a business standpoint, as well as a wonderful artist, and Kyle is both,” Perlo said.
Earning professional respect has required something of a social sacrifice. In the rehearsal room, Abraham encourages his dancers to go out on dates on their nights off but is also quick to bemoan being single. He tries to designate Wednesdays as his “office day,” but there’s always more paperwork to do. And when you run your own company, at some point, your dancers stop being your peers and become your employees.
“They don’t really teach you, when you say ‘I want to be a choreographer,’ how lonely that job can be,” he said. “There are days when I have to write grants, and I can’t go out. I just have to sit in my room. That’s hard. There’s so many pieces to put together, and I don’t think people understand all the little microtasks that are involved. You may have a lighting designer and a lighting supervisor, but you still have to make sure that everyone is doing their jobs. You have to know everybody’s roles, and make sure everything’s happening, and that’s where it gets overwhelming at times.”
He pauses. He’s on a rehearsal break, chomping to-go oatmeal from Jamba Juice. This is his subsistence food, “Hours old and still good.” Music from his iPod is throbbing softly, and his dancers are returning to the studio, stretching, getting ready to start again. We’ve reached a point in rehearsal where Abraham will have to start dancing the roll of his missing understudy. He also needs to cue up the music, and the video he made of himself demonstrating new steps. Oh, and he should keep stretching. The whole scenario reminds him of what the next few touring gigs will be like.
“There’s this system set up,” he says. “I have to be checking sound levels when I want to warm up. Hopefully, one day I can check the sound levels and just watch.” He laughs. He smiles. And then he says, “Or someday, maybe I can just watch.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
performs “The Radio Show” at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. May 6. Dance Place, 3225 8th St. NE. 202-269-160. www.danceplace.org.