Consider Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1791, as a deliberate incomplete sentence, a poetic invitation open to reinterpretation over the ensuing 231 years. Its latest evolution takes shape in the hands of choreographer Kyle Abraham, whose transformative evening-length work, Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth, premieres in New York this week. Co-commissioned by Lincoln Center and featuring 10 dancers from his company, A.I.M, the new piece repositions the classical Requiem as an exploration of rebirth, ritual, and the afterlife. The result is a stunning and abstracted rewiring of mythology, folklore, and Afrofuturism.
Abraham has built his practice on this kind of cultural reimagination. Pavement, his breakout full-length work from 2012, took on the specter of John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz N the Hood, a coming-of-age story set in South Central Los Angeles. The choreographer transplanted it to his hometown of Pittsburgh and swapped in Bach, Vivaldi, and Mississippi Fred McDowell for the original soundtrack (Ice Cube, 2 Live Crew, Tony! Toni! Toné!). The following year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Abraham a so-called genius grant, adding fuel to the creative fire. A decade later, his answer to the Requiem similarly flips musical expectations, putting Mozart’s score in conversation with new compositions by the electronic musician Jlin. (The planetary sets and lighting are by longtime collaborator Dan Scully, and fashion designer Giles Deacon created the equally stage-stealing costumes.) Abraham’s choreography, unfailingly fresh and charismatic, manages to hold space for darkness and introspection—a reflection of his own prismatic personality. Part of what makes him an uncanny interpreter of our time is his full-hearted versatility and originality, rooted in a liberated and instinctively egalitarian approach to dance and music.
Abraham simultaneously lives across multiple creative projects, eras, and places—a choreographically and geographically necessary way of being. We met up in early August at Café Paulette in Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Abraham calls home when he is not in Los Angeles or traveling, which is seemingly almost always. A week earlier, the company performed Requiem at the Venice Biennale; later this month, A.I.M heads to the Edinburgh Festival with An Untitled Love, Abraham’s transcendent and joyous evening-length celebration of Black love and Black culture, set to the music of R&B legend D’Angelo. It premiered this past February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the musician himself in attendance one night. (Barack and Michelle Obama caught a performance during its Kennedy Center run in April.) September’s schedule includes the Emmys—Abraham is nominated for the dance film If I Were a Love Song, an homage to Nina Simone, directed by Dehanza Rogers—and New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala, which will showcase Abraham’s second main-stage commission, following 2018’s The Runaway.
This burst of activity, of course, comes after a collective halt. The pandemic postponed An Untitled Love’s premiere, originally slated for 2020, which put Requiem close on its heels (think of it as a contemporary echo of Mozart, who was completing The Magic Flute when his own Requiem commission arrived). In early lockdown A.I.M (among the few companies that gives its dancers a 52-week salary and health insurance) did not attempt to hold Zoom rehearsals. Instead, they gathered for weekly virtual sessions to share favorite books and films, to refine aspects of character development for An Untitled Love, and to simply talk through it all. Requiem, as Abraham lays out in the conversation below, is informed by those exchanges and an evolving sense of legacy.
Vanity Fair: So just let me start by saying that An Untitled Love was just one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed this year. And I’m blown away even by the video preview of Requiem, ahead of seeing it live. As distinct as they are from each other, they feel like such transformative works.
Kyle Abraham: Yes, they are different, totally—like night and day. An Untitled Love is so celebratory and loving, and seemingly linear, in a way. Whereas I have no idea what people’s expectations are for Requiem. I don’t even know if I think of the dancers as being human. Maybe they’re from another planet; maybe they’re from the year 3024. So you won’t have that same kind of connection with the individual. And I’m okay with that. But it’s a weird thing, to be unpacking and processing and thinking about how the audience will receive the work.
How did you come to choose the Requiem, or how did it come to choose you?
Jon Nakagawa [director of contemporary programming at Lincoln Center] had seen my work and wanted me to do something with Mozart’s music. I wanted to do Requiem for a host of reasons. One, I can be a bit of a depressive person. But I had also been thinking about death and loss in new ways in the years since my both parents passed away—around the idea of what’s next, or what if there were people talking to you about this idea of legacies. I’d rather be remembered as a good person than, you know, someone with, like, one good dance. I think that’s also what led me to this work.
When did it occur to you to invite Jlin as a composer?
I initially started out thinking about the beauty in the original music, and how to bring myself to that. And then Lincoln Center informed me that I wasn’t going to have live music. At first I was, like, Oh, you’re setting up a Black person to fail—because every other show had live music. But that led me to think about Jlin as a thread to a reimagining. This was as all these other things started to come into place [around the work]: these ideas around Black futurism, life after life, folklore. And I love her music. I’d spent an entire year teaching from her album Black Origami.
We just hit it off instantly. We both have a similar work ethic, where we’re like, We’re going to get the thing done. Neither of us wants to fail. We’re not the people who wait for other people to do our thing. We do our thing. Aside from our birthdays being like two weeks apart, we’re both just really responsible artists.
Two Leos collaborating! And wow, the first moment when you hear her music in the piece—the transition between those worlds—really hits. Speaking of collaborators, you’ve worked with Dan [Scully] for so long, and here the lighting and set elements are particularly prominent.
When you have more resources to do these things, that allows him to dream it. I try to be as open as possible and be like, ‘What would you do in the grandest way?’ I actually wanted the lighting and set to be the star. You still can see the dance and hear the music and all the things—but I wanted those elements to really shine. Dan did beautiful lighting on An Untitled Love, but a lot of it was deliberately subtle. This is the complete opposite.
It casts things in such an otherworldly light at times that it causes you to really think about the world in which the dance takes place.
Sometimes I think about the works as cinematic genres. Pavement was definitely a drama. An Untitled Love was a kind of romantic comedy. And Requiem is very much in the science fiction world. I just don’t like the fact that these works are so up against each other. I really wanted a year between them. Or, to make a Prince reference: If An Untitled Love is Sign o’ the Times, Requiem is the Batman soundtrack. From a similar time period, but very different.
It occurred to me that, in a way, An Untitled Love’s homage to D’Angelo is like your version of the Joffrey Ballet’s 1993 Billboards performance, set to Prince’s songs—which I know made a big impact on you.
Both Billboards and Prince himself as an artist. At one point, when we were doing all these talks with schools in the pandemic, something clicked for me. Like, Oh, my god, I’m understanding myself that much more in terms of why I make work the way I do. Growing up, Prince and Terence Trent D’Arby were two artists I loved, and who also would happen to have a hit song on the pop charts and a totally different song on the R&B charts at the same time. Seeing them do that made me feel like I can do that in my world, but I wasn’t even aware of it at the time.
It’s so liberating, and it’s also the absolute flip of the kind of limiting expectations that are often placed on Black artists—to only make work about certain topics or issues. Which says a lot more about the limitations of the person doing the “allowing” than it does about the vision of the artist.
I think, a lot of times, we’re only “allowed” to make art about pain.
And An Untitled Love is really the opposite of that. It’s so full of love, and humor too.
That work is in a lot of ways thinking about, Well, what is my history with D’Angelo? And how far back can that go? Thinking about how his first album came out my first year in college, at a historically Black university [Morgan State] in Baltimore; [how] my parents met at another historically Black college, and thinking about all the friends that they met during that time, who are now my aunts and uncles, who I still talk to. All of that was something that I really wanted to honor. I wanted to unpack that with a little bit of levity and a little bit of grounding too—straight up just joy and love.
So much of the work that I’ve been making, I’ve been addressing the injustice that we as Black people and as queer people experience in this country. And that comes from a long time ago. People also aren’t going to necessarily get the idea that, in most cases, the work that I’m making is actually referencing 20 years ago. A lot of people thought that Pavement was about Trayvon Martin, when it’s actually inspired by Boys N the Hood. An Untitled Love goes all the way back to my growing up and to the world of my parents, [but] I wanted to make a work that was much more about celebrating who we are.
What was it like to show that work to D’Angelo? He came to see the final BAM performance in February.
He is such a hero of mine, and I hope he was able to take in what I said to him. Even though he’s making new music, I said, I just also want you to know that, like, what you have given us is enough for a lifetime, so no pressure. That’s why I used songs of his from different eras—to show how we connect to them in such a deep way, what he represents for so many people. So I hope he heard that.
I think part of the irony is that, for many people, he became oversexualized, but I didn’t look at it that way. Even watching that video [“Untitled: How Does It Feel”], what I was keyed in on was his vulnerability. That was so raw and beautiful to me. Yes, he had the body. But if you’re with the brother for that first album, you know, he wore that big-ass parka coat on the cover. It’s frustrating to think that, for some people, it’s not actually even about the music.
So to make a show for an artist who expresses his vulnerability becomes an extra powerful thing. And the Obamas came.
Part of the way my mother raised me is that I don’t believe anything is happening until it happens. She used to plan trips for us and say, “I don’t want you all to get excited about this.” So I never get excited about things ahead of time, ever. One of the last times we were in DC, they were both supposed to come to a show we were doing at Howard University. The Secret Service came and did the checks and everything, but he got called away at the last minute because he was still the president. Luckily, the First Lady still came to that show, and I’ll never forget that. But having them both come to this was so special.
“Barack, you can’t miss them this time.”
Just the beauty in what they represent for so many people, not just Black couples. It was so powerful to have them there to see the show that, to me, was hoping to honor the way that we love.
What are the things that challenge you most now as an artist, and how are you working through them?
Around the time of starting An Untitled Love, and working on certain ballets and contemporary dance projects, I was in this place where I was thinking, You know, I want to put as much of me [and my movement] in this as I can. I love it. I never saw myself as a ballet dancer, by any means—but working with people from everywhere becomes that much richer because they can move from ballet into a release technique to a contemporary dance idea, in a very short sequence of material. I’m taking more ownership over my history and understanding of those things.
During the early pandemic, I went into the park over there with two of our dancers, CJ [Johnson] and Donovan [Reed], with the idea of just making stuff. And it was beautiful because we weren’t bound to anything. We ended up making a little dance video. It helped me return to the joy of making without any of those pressures. You know? We just went to the park and danced.
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