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. They chatter and saunter past other dancers, occasionally erupting in chatter. 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 highly musical and propulsive dances for his own troupe, as well as larger companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have faced issues such as police brutality, mass imprisonment, and other legacies associated with 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.”
Abraham was contemplating love when he thought of his parents. He also thought of their social circles in Pittsburgh, including gatherings in living rooms, church, the barbershop, and hair salons. His mother was a teacher, guidance counselor, principal in a public school; his father was social worker and coached youth sports teams. Abraham lost both his parents when he was in his 30s. Their memories, which reverberate to extended family and friends, infuse the work. Vivid colors and assorted patterns add to the warmth onstage, courtesy of Karen Young’s costumes, Joe 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 reject 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. He lives in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and 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.
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 we engage in during work was partly a tribute to our relationship and our humor. The two of us were as thick as thieves.