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Kyle Abraham on Transcending Time and Finding Lightness in Requiem

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. 

Kyle Abraham.

By Tatiana Wills.

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.

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