'White governments gave us guns and turned a blind eye': Kyle Abraham on his Boyz N the Hood dance

His political fury and upbeat moves make Kyle Abraham one of America’s most original choreographers. He talks about systemic racism, his wrecked home town of Pittsburgh, creating an African opera and playing Obama’s speeches backwards

“I grew up making dances in my bedroom long before I knew anything about dance. It was my outlet. I’d put on a song by Prince or Morrissey, and when I danced to it I’d feel like I was sharing my life with that singer, I’d feel like I was having a relationship with him.”

Kyle Abraham, who recently turned 40, is widely regarded as one of the US’s most original choreographers, his talent acknowledged by accolades such as a MacArthur “Genius” award. Yet despite all those years making weltschmertzy solos in his bedroom, he was 17 before he took his first formal dance class, or even understood that choreography could be a career. Until then he’d been largely focused on music: he had studied classical piano, cello and a “whole other gaggle of instruments”, but he was equally obsessed by rock, house and hip-hop. “Back in the 80s, people listened to everything. I was really into the Digable Planets – I loved their twisty hair, and I tried to grow mine out the same.”

It was when Abraham was cast in a Caribbean musical at his Pittsburgh high school that everything changed for him. A teacher, spotting his talent for movement, offered him a scholarship to a dance summer school, and from there Abraham progressed to a dance degree at Purchase College, State University of New York, where he fast-tracked himself to become a choreographer. “I’ve always been an obnoxious overachiever,” he grins serenely. “After I’d done all my compositional assignments I’d ask to be given those of the other classes as well.” By 2006 he had formed his own company and by 2010 he was being showcased on some of New York’s most prestigious stages, performing in the annual Fall for Dance festival. His work was unusual for combining a fierce political awareness with a sophisticated instinct for form and style.

Dedrick D Gobert, Baldwin C Sykes and Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood, the inspiration for Kyle Abraham’s Pavement.
Dedrick D Gobert, Baldwin C Sykes and Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood, the inspiration for Kyle Abraham’s Pavement. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd

Abraham’s 2012 piece Pavement, performed at Sadler’s Wells theatre this week, exemplifies all those qualities. It is inspired by Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 film – a powerful text for the Black Lives Matter movement – in which the stories of three young men are used to chart social struggle in a violently divided city. Abraham has relocated its setting from LA to his hometown, Pittsburgh. This formerly proud place, “with an awesome concert hall and great restaurants”, he says, went into steep decline from the 1970s, its buildings falling into dereliction, its communities riven by racism, gangs and drugs.

With a cast of just seven dancers, Abraham portrays the cycle of neglect in American society that has consigned disadvantaged young people, especially young black people, to lives of abuse and incarceration. But his choreography combines ballet, contemporary and street, and he uses music that ranges from Bach to Jacques Brel to Sam Cooke, he has generated a universality of emotion and symbolism that speaks to audiences around the world. Pavement has become his most widely performed piece.

In person, Abraham is expansive and funny and looks raffishly chic dressed in a shirt of peacock blues and greens. He asks a lot of questions and promises to be “an open book” in response to mine. He also tells me there is a place of deeply political “anger and frustration” inside him, which affects every work he creates.

“There are times,” he says, “when I do just want to make a dancey dance. When other choreographers work with pure form I think it’s exquisite. I’ll go any day of the week to see it. But for me, I always get to a certain point when I feel it’s a waste of time and energy. Being black and gay there’s so much that I’ve faced in my life that I can’t be oblivious to what’s happening in the world. I can’t put all that aside and say: ‘Let’s just choreograph this pretty picture.’”

Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and the Smoke at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2014.
Kyle Abraham and Wendy Whelan in The Serpent and the Smoke at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Abraham acknowledges that in many respects his own life has been fortunate. He grew up in a stable supportive family; his parents both worked in the public school system and he and his older sister were encouraged to excel.

But privilege was no defence against the systemic racism around him. As an honours student Abraham was put in a class of largely white children and he became acutely aware of how different his experience was from theirs. He would be routinely followed around in shops, to check that he wasn’t stealing and was subjected to the N-word, even by one of his teachers. Yet he also felt excluded by friends who were black: “Because of everything I was studying, I talked and acted a bit differently. I wasn’t the stereotypical black kid and I used to be called gay even though I had no idea, then, that I was.”

Looking back, Abraham is aware how much tension was seething around his neighbourhood. “Everyone was trying to get out, everyone was competing. People would get stuck on material things – such as flat-screen TVs – that would make them feel better than their neighbour.” There was little sense of local pride and camaraderie; worse still, there was the threat of violent crime.

He is furious at the US’s failure to address the issue of its broken black communities. “In my mind I see a succession of white governments handing out guns to us and saying: ‘Here, you go play and we’ll turn a blind eye.’” He mourns the lost glimmer of hope that was offered by the Obama administration, and he is appalled by its successor. His latest work, Drive, asks, “Where we are now and where we have been?” It ends with one of Obama’s speeches, played backwards.

Maleek Washington, Matthew Baker, Chalvar Monteiro and Rena Butler in Pavement.
Maleek Washington, Matthew Baker, Chalvar Monteiro and Rena Butler in Pavement. Photograph: Carrie Schneider

I ask Abraham if he ever feels weighed down by being a representative black voice. “It is what it is,” he shrugs. “Everything I do is automatically political, I have to consider things that a white choreographer doesn’t. There are two white dancers in my company and whenever I put them on stage people will automatically question their significance.” Sometimes the most politically or racially neutral material will be interpreted in ways he finds utterly confounding. There is a moment in his recent work Dearest Home in which one of the (white) male dancers has to break down and weep, and Abraham has been surprised to read that these tears are an expression of guilt over the evils of gentrification.

But Abraham’s creative range is too wide and too buoyant for him to feel constrained by the role of angry black choreographer. His dances may be political but they are also aspirational, complex and upbeat. He feels blessed by having a full-time company with whom he has an intimate working relationship. His dancers collaborate closely with him in the creation of all his work, and he trusts them so deeply that he often has them go out on tour alone so that he can work on other projects.

Currently he is buzzing with plans for new dances, which include a solo for himself. For the last two years he has also been in discussions with conductors about presenting a setting of Mozart’s Requiem and more ambitiously still, he’s dreaming of creating a new opera that will be African in style. “I want it to be very real, with African dialect and everything. I’ve never seen or heard one before.”

Ever the overachiever, he’s keen to perfect his French – “I think you either speak a language or you don’t” – and to design himself the perfect T-shirt. He grabs one from his bag, so that I can appreciate its fabric and cut – and he’s still talking T-shirts as he exits the interview, hurrying to catch his train.

Pavement is at Sadler’s Wells, London EC1R, on 17-18 November. sadlerswells.com.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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