Consider Mozart Requiem in D minor, unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1791, as a deliberately incomplete phrase, a poetic invitation open to reinterpretation over the next 231 years. Its latest evolution takes shape in the hands of the choreographer Kyle Abraham, whose transformative work of an evening, Requiem: Fire in the Air of Earth, premieres in New York this week. Co-commissioned by Lincoln Center and featuring 10 dancers from his company, AIM, the new piece repositions the classic Requiem as an exploration of rebirth, ritual and the afterlife. The result is a stunning, abstract rewiring of mythology, folklore, and Afrofuturism.
Abraham built his practice on this kind of cultural reimagining. Curb, his 2012 feature, took John Singleton’s 1991 specter 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 Bach, Vivaldi and Mississippi Fred McDowell for the soundtrack (Ice Cube, 2 Live Crew, Tony! Toni! Toné!). The following year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Abraham a so-called Genius Fellowship, adding fuel to the creative fire. A decade later, his response to the Requiem similarly subverts musical expectations, bringing Mozart’s score into conversation with new compositions by the electronic musician. jlin. (Planetary backdrops and lighting are by longtime collaborator Dan Scully, and fashion designer Gilles Deacon created the equally scene-stealing costumes.) Abraham’s choreography, always fresh and charismatic, manages to leave room for darkness and introspection, a reflection of his own prismatic personality. Part of what makes him a supernatural performer of our time is his versatility and unreserved originality, rooted in a liberated and instinctively egalitarian approach to dance and music.
Abraham lives simultaneously through multiple creative projects, times and places – a choreographically and geographically necessary way of being. We met in early August at Café Paulette in Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Abraham calls home when he’s not in Los Angeles or traveling, which almost always seems to be. A week earlier, the company played Requiem at the Venice Biennale; later this month, AIM will head to the Edinburgh Festival with An untitled love, Abraham’s transcendent and joyful celebration of black love and black culture, set to music by the R&B legend D’Angelo. It was created last February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in the presence of the musician himself one evening. (Barack and michelle obama attended a performance during his run at the Kennedy Center in April.) September schedule includes Emmys – Abraham is nominated for dance film If I was a love song a tribute to Nina Simone, directed by Dehanza Rogers— and the New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala, which will feature Abraham’s second commission on the main stage, following 2018’s Fugue.
This burst of activity comes of course after a collective shutdown. The pandemic postponed An untitled love‘s premiere, originally scheduled for 2020, which put Requiem on his heels (think of him as a contemporary echo of Mozart, who ended The magic flute when his Requiem the commission has arrived). At the start of the lockdown, AIM (among the few companies that offer its dancers a 52-week salary and health insurance) did not attempt to hold Zoom rehearsals. Instead, they came together for weekly virtual sessions to share their favorite books and movies, to hone aspects of character development for An untitled loveand just talk through it all. Requiem, as Abraham explains in the conversation below, is informed by these exchanges and an evolving sense of inheritance.
Vanity Lounge: So let me start by saying that An untitled love was just one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed this year. And I’m blown away even by the video preview of Requiem, before seeing it live. As distinct as they are from each other, they look like such transformative works.