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Choreographer Kyle Abraham Is Weaving Fashion Into Dance

In this FRONTPAGE story, master choreographer Kyle Abraham meditates on the relationship between fashion and dance with Highsnobiety's Editor-in-Chief Willa Bennett.

Kyle Abraham is used to getting corrected. “When I tell people I’m a choreographer, they sometimes try to correct me and say ‘dancer,’” he laughs. “They’re not really one and the same.”

Coming into dance at a later age compared to most of his peers, Abraham set out to be a choreographer first, and he is currently one of the most skilled and acclaimed artists working today. He is the founder of his own company (the highly-acclaimed A.I.M., who The New York Times described as a “consistently excellent troupe”), and is an educator at the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the University of Southern California. His work draws on a variety of cultural influences exploring identity; his 2012 ensemble piece Pavement drew from John Singleton’s iconic 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, while his 2020 collaboration Ces noms que nous portons (“These Names That We Bear”) with the New York City Ballet was a site-specific showcase at Lincoln Center honoring victims of racist and homophobic abuse.

With a rich history of dance intersecting with the world of fashion, we were curious how Abraham considers style in relation to his work and why “everyone” should see dance.

WILLA BENNETT: Benjamin A. Huseby featured the City Ballet Corp in his latest presentation a year after Miu Miu put literal ballet shoes down the runway in Paris. How would you describe the relationship between fashion and dance?

KYLE ABRAHAM: I’ve always been excited and inspired by the intersectionality of dance and fashion. Aside from the collaborations that have existed between the two onstage, there just seems to be a natural synergy in form and trend.

BENNETT: I teared up at the Bode show during Men’s Fashion Week — the theatrics of the show reminded me of dance. I always say: Fashion is theater. It’s poetry. It’s fiction. It’s dance. I’m curious what you think of fashion shows?

ABRAHAM: I love going to fashion shows! I’ve been to a few, and love the thought and care that goes into the very first look, all the way through the transitions into each look that follows. And as someone who loves making a good playlist, I love the consideration that goes into the music chosen for each show. I try to make similar considerations both when choreographing a show, but also when I’m making the playlist for the music that my audiences will walk into the space and experience.

BENNETT: How do you make space to feel with such an intense schedule?

ABRAHAM: Dance is very much a certain form of therapy for me. I’m sharing and working through grief and desire while making space to celebrate culture and community… and in the process, grounding all my work with vulnerability and honesty. I love and appreciate abstraction. There’s something so freeing in the safety and danger of what isn’t always obvious to a viewer. In a lot of ways, it’s the movement or unspoken word that really speaks volumes to the human psyche.

Therapy is very important for everyone. It’s hard for me to organize and commit the time for my own health in that way. I’m definitely trying to make more space for that both in my mental and physical health by making more time to go to the gym or continue my yoga practice or finding a therapist I can truly connect with. I definitely want to make time for love. I’m just trying to remain hopeful that I’ll be able to fall in love again with someone, with the possibility of lifting each other up in sad or low moments while keeping each other grounded in joy.

BENNETT: Is there a difference between dance, the institution, and being a dancer?

ABRAHAM: When I tell people I’m a choreographer, they sometimes try to correct me and say “dancer,” but they’re not really one and the same. They’re really different roles and experiences. I have a lot of care and appreciation for both, but the way I experience them are not the same. When I think of dance institutions, I tend to think about limitations. I kinda love it when I can be free to create without set breaks, etc. If we need a break, we’ll take one, of course. But I love just going with the flow when I’m creating. But I can’t really do that with the “institution” of dance all the time.

BENNETT: Do you think this relationship between fashion and dance is productive?

ABRAHAM: It can be when there’s a natural connection and mutual respect amongst forms. I love a good collaboration and good synergy. For that relationship to really flourish, though, it’s really important that there’s really clear communication. I’ve been in some situations where the designer and the person building a design unintentionally left me out of the loop on more than one occasion. And when that happens, it’s hard for any changes to occur that everyone can feel good about or fully get behind.

BENNETT: Have you always called yourself a dancer?

ABRAHAM: Never, really… haha! I’ve called myself a choreographer… who sometimes dances.

I love ballet! More than it loves me, though… haha! I started studying ballet, modern, jazz, and tap when I was 17 years old. I definitely connected more with jazz and modern, because they seemed more natural for me. But that didn’t prevent me from always wanting to know more about ballet or to get better. I love that there are so many outrageous possibilities in ballet. And as a choreographer in ballet, you can just yell out terms and dancers can understand what you’re saying and instantly present you with a physicalized version of what you said — and with precision. I love that!

BENNETT: Do you think people perceive your work in a way you’re comfortable with?

ABRAHAM: I only have but so much control over that, so I can’t really create with that in my mind when the curtain goes up. With live theater, you can be easily impacted by whatever you experienced just before walking into the theater doors. So many things can be triggers or catalysts with in-person live performance. I just try to be as thoughtful and clear as possible with my intentions and storytelling.

BENNETT: What role do you think costuming has in how your work is perceived?

ABRAHAM: It’s everything! The costuming establishes the world for the audience and performers. It’s the grounding that tells you what decade we’re in, what planet we’re on, fiction or nonfiction. In a lot of ways, costuming is an artist’s program note.

BENNETT: Last fall, the New York City Ballet was criticized for prizing “costumes over dancing” at the annual fashion gala performance. Did you think this critique was fair?

ABRAHAM: For that show, Gianna Reisen and Solange [Knowles] worked together for the ballet entitled Play Time. I loved what Gianna Reisen created with Alejandro Gómez Palomo (the designer). When the curtain goes up, audiences are in awe. I love that theatrical magic. My work for that program was set to the music of James Blake and costumes were designed by Giles Deacon. Giles and I have collaborated several times now. But our very first collaboration was at NYCB for a work called The Runaway. Working with Giles, in particular, is really inspiring, because his imagination is such a rich well of brilliant ideas.

I understand what the critic was saying, but I don’t know if I agree. Sometimes the costumes do “overshadow” the work, but the same can be said for a musical score or even lighting design. It’s a risk that you have to take. The bigger issue is time. There needs to be time for experimentation, and time for these collaborators to see their designs on dancers with the choreographer and designer in the room to hopefully make their work be its absolute best.

BENNETT: Do you read reviews?

ABRAHAM: I might read a review if I’m still workshopping something. But I don’t really want to read them until some time has passed. Any singular negative criticism can send me in a tailspin if I let it.

BENNETT: Do you think reviews matter?

ABRAHAM: It’s a question for me of whether or not I respect the critic. There are some that I really dig, regardless of whether or not I’ve received “negative” criticism from them. I can read their critique and know that it’s coming from a knowledgeable place. Ultimately, it’s all subjective.

I’m not sure about reviews overall but I think criticism is very important. A lot of really great dance writers are finding it hard to find jobs these days because newspapers [and publications in general] are eliminating positions for dance criticism.

BENNETT: That show got an exorbitant amount of press due to Solange’s presence — it was all over TikTok, sold out quicker than usual, and featured in magazines that had never touched dance before. How did you feel about that?

ABRAHAM: Solange has such a brilliant following. She and her audience really changed the energy in the theater in such a beautiful way. It brought so many people to the ballet for the first time. It was such a beautiful thing to witness.

BENNETT: Do you think everyone should see dance?

ABRAHAM: Everybody should see dance. But it’s just like music — there are some genres of music that you’ll like more than others. So if you see a dance and don’t like it or think that you “don’t get it,” that doesn’t mean that you should write off an entire art form. I don’t think that the same people that listen to Kendrick [Lamar] are vibing out to Taylor Swift… and if they are that’s cool. But I’m just saying that, in general, people don’t stop listening to music because they don’t like one song or one artist. The same thinking should be applied to dance.

BENNETT: Who do you dance for?

ABRAHAM: I dance for myself and for my ancestors. I make dances for my community and for overall experimentation. A lot of times, I tell people that “I make dances for the people that own the corner store, and the people that shop in the corner store.”

BENNETT: I can imagine the pressure you feel for your company — it’s grown so much and you have so many talented dancers looking to your leadership. It’s a completely different skill set than being a dancer. How do you manage those feelings?

ABRAHAM: I’m trying to make more space for myself to “be in my body.” I’m prioritizing running and yoga, but I still need to make space to dance. What people don’t always realize is that space to dance in isn’t always easy to come by. And then there are other factors to consider. If the floor is too hard, it’s not good to be dancing on it. If it’s too cold, it takes longer to warm up, and you could get injured. Lot’s to consider.

BENNETT: In this context, has it become harder to make work for yourself?

ABRAHAM: It sure has. It’s tricky for me. I prefer to make dances than to dance myself because of my own insecurities. But if I’m compelled to dance, I need to and want to make the space to do that.

BENNETT: If you could go to any fashion show in the world what would it be?

ABRAHAM: There are so many designers that I love who I think would do a really great show. Too many to name!

  • WordsWilla Bennett
  • PhotographyAdraint Khadafhi Bereal
  • StylingMarion B. Kelly II
  • Executive ProducerTristan Rodriguez
  • Productiont • creative
  • GroomingScott McMahan
  • Set DesignLiana Kornitzer
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