Kyle Abraham's "Dearest Home" premieres at the YBCA

Kyle Abraham Taps Memories of Longing and Loss for Dearest Home

Lou Fancher on May 6, 2017
Connie Shiau, Matthew Baker and Tamisha Guy in Dearest Home | Credit: Carrie Schneider

Think of home. In silence, think of sound.

Think of love, longing, and loss.

Now move.

That simple, three-step formula unfolds in a complex web of primarily solo and duet dances in Dearest Home, a world premiere coming May 16–20 to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Conceived and choreographed by YBCA 100 honoree, MacArthur “Genius,” and award–winning choreographer Kyle Abraham and presented by his company, Abraham.In.Motion, the piece evolved out of a YBCA residency. Workshops led by Abraham in San Francisco, Oakland, and Michigan, an audience-empathy study in collaboration with UCLA, and in-progress performances in Chicago and other locations offered opportunity for the work to coalesce.

Kyle Abraham in The Radio Show | Credit: Steven Schreiber

There is comfort in a timeline that extends from January 2016 to May 2017. Which is a good thing, because during the lengthy process, the Pittsburgh-native whose spectacular dancing earned Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2009 and a 2010 Bessie Award was able to make himself decidedly uncomfortable.

“What is happening in my work? I’m interested in exploring what I’m capable of; pushing in new ways, going beyond my comfort,” he says in an interview. “I’m looking to have a deeper understanding of how comfort differentiates itself from complacency. I’m terrified, which I think is good for an artist. For any person.”

Scaring himself means getting into the space and moving, instead of leaning on the crutch of his company’s incredible dancers. “Normally I do two seconds, then go away. I recently turned 40 and I realized, I can still dance. I have an expressive body. As I hire and collaborate with more agile bodies that are different than mine, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be honoring my own validity.”

For Dearest Home, discomfort went beyond moving more — it included moving without a specific score or soundtrack. Seeking his authentic voice, Abraham relied on memory, more than on music. “How we look at performance and ownership and authenticity, I think it’s all related to memory. We rely on our personal experiences and draw upon and visualize them.”

Jeremy Jae Neal and Vinson Fraley Jr. | Credit: Carrie Schneider

Investigating memory instead of prescribed notes, melodies, rhythms, and phrases invited danger. He says the work is the most personal he’s ever made and has revealed what he has been holding back. “I’ve held back emotionally. I don’t know if it’s safe to open up. Will it open up in San Francisco?”

The dancers encounter risk right along with Abraham. Not only are their ideas and thoughts used as source material for movements, but their preconceived notions about dance and how it fits or follows music are challenged. Although Abraham used a playlist to generate movement phrases during the process, he never allowed the dancers to hear it. The same off-limit parameter applies to the score by Jerome Begin that was commissioned almost as a separate entity. “The music came in one year into the process,” says Abraham. “I never listened to his music while choreographing. The dancers have never heard it.”

Kyle Abraham | Credit: Carrie Schneider

The composer attended rehearsals, wearing headsets and composing during the process. Abraham shared his ideas and rehearsal videos with Begin, but says the music, like the set and lighting design by Dan Scully, tells an original story.

Combined, the stories counter the “angry works” Abraham sees as prevalent in contemporary choreography and theater. Even so, there is darkness, regret, and loss. “I looked at civil rights and felt frustration at what hadn’t changed; the toll racism is taking on us physically and emotionally. This work is supposed to be a healer.”

But not a cushy healer. One of Abraham’s favorite bands while growing up was The Smiths. “My favorite songs [of theirs] were pretty damn sad. That worked its way into the process. It’s hard to divorce any thought of love from thoughts of loss. Similarly, with loss, longing comes into play. In some cases, love is the most simplistic of those words. Longing and loss add complexity, empathy.”

Connie Shiau | Credit: Carrie Schneider

Complexity includes pain, like the kind caused by a question Abraham was asked when a stranger “ripped off the rose-colored glasses” within days of Barak Obama’s election in 2008. “I was on tour and a guy said to me, ‘I guess you feel like you have a lot of power because Obama’s in office now.’ It shocked me. A lot of racism started showing its head when people thought they’d be seeing the opposite.”

With campaign rhetoric and tweets roiling people on all sides of politics, Abraham says he hasn’t been shocked by what’s happening in 2017. “My work hasn’t shifted due to the political climate at all. I generally make work from my perspective. I haven’t really experienced something so new in the last few years.” But he has noticed a greater urgency. “It’s great when people are called to act or respond and want to now scream instead of whisper. I welcome more people to that chorus.”

The audience attending Dearest Home in the 450-seat theater-in-the-round at YBCA will have the option of listening to the score through headsets, or focusing on the dancers’ bodies with only ambient sound. Abraham says the dancers have still not heard the music — nor will they — and hopes people will either wear the headsets throughout, or go entirely without. “I’ve been experimenting and we know that if you take the headsets on and off, you’ll have a disconnected experience. The choice is partly based on my own insecurity that I could make a work that could stand on its own without music. And once you’ve commissioned a score and it’s beautiful, you hate to not use it.”

Abraham likes how the headsets make the score a just-for-you-concert. By canceling out audience sounds, thoughts generated by the piece and the music become uniquely personal. Or perhaps he likes music delivered by headsets because it is a comfort, a way to close off strangers’ angry words and tune in to authentic memories of Dearest Home.